#ReadingTheMeow2024: Dewey, the Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World

Mallika of Literary Potpourri invites us to read and discuss books with cats in them this week, and after some unsuccessful attempts to find one — disappointed by books with not enough feline presence or too dull or unpleasant to make me want to finish or share them with you — I came across this charming true-life story.

Dewey was dumped as a kitten in the library book drop in Spencer, Iowa, rescued by the librarians and dubbed the library cat. Over the years he became a beloved presence for many (though not all) town residents, and began to attract attention from national and even worldwide press. By the time he died, he had become a legend, and the library is still visited by those seeking to commune with Dewey — though the library board has since made a no-cat rule, Dewey’s spirit lives on.

What was so special about Dewey? In the account of Vicki Myron, former head librarian and “Dewey’s mom,” he seems to have had an unusual degree of intuition regarding people and their needs. He greeted her every single day as she arrived at the library. She insists that he could tell when she or other people were in emotional trouble and offered them comfort with his playfulness or willingness to be quietly patted. He loved to explore the library, making perilous trips all the way to the ceiling, but was never destructive. In one story his strange behavior turned out to have been a warning about an intruder. He was alert, responsive, and apparently aware that he had an important job to do.

Interwoven with Dewey’s growth into the role of official library cat is the story of a small Iowa town, fallen on hard times in the farm crisis of the 80s, and of Vicki Myron herself, who went through many relational and health challenges. For Vicki and for the town, Dewey often brought a sense of life and hope when things were going downhill. Some reader reviews of the book complain that there was too much of this other information and not enough cat stories, but I disagree. Dewey was a community cat, not just a solitary personality, and it was necessary to fill out the story of his “people.”

Vicki was the most important person in his life, and it was also worthwhile to learn something about her and her struggles, to explain the joy she derived from this special animal friendship. Her writing (assisted by co-author Bret Witter) is not remarkable in a literary sense, but it’s heartfelt and honest and certainly brought Dewey to life for me.

Though he couldn’t read books, Dewey was a “reader” of people. He had a sense of what people needed and appeared happy to deliver it to them, just as people enter a library with many needs that the librarians try to serve as best they can. His curiosity, love of exploration, and alert responsiveness represent what we humans ought to bring into our quest for learning and growth. Surely any library could benefit from having a cat like that, to remind us what we’re there for.

Vicki Myron and Bret Witter, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (Grand Central 2008)

Also counted for Nonfiction Reader Challenge, Pets category

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8 thoughts on “#ReadingTheMeow2024: Dewey, the Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World

  1. Thank you so much for this review Lory and for joining in. I knew of Dewey and the book but haven’t read this story. I agree that as a community or even library cat, their stories become as much part of his as his are part of theirs. It’s wonderful how one little animal can change so many lives for the better.

    1. Oh interesting! I’ve heard of Dewey, of course, but didn’t realize a no-cat rule was instituted later. My thought is there were practical concerns. What if a patron (or staff member) is allergic or gets scratched? Who is paying to feed the cat? Who takes the cat home when the library is closed? Many public buildings have motion sensors when they are locked up. What if the cat sets off the alarm after hours?

      It’s quite possible, too, that the book made the reality seem more charming than many people found it at the time. I recently saw a library post on social media that they would get a cat (it was clearly a joke) and they were bombarded with an unexpected amount of angry people threatening never to darken the door of the library again. I guess not everyone likes cats….

      1. Yep, those are important issues. Allergies were considered at the beginning with Dewey, medical advice was sought and the opinion was that in the open-plan library the risk of being affected was low. (I’m not sure severe allergy sufferers would agree.) Liability for scratching etc. was not addressed that I recall, but may have been one of the reasons against acquiring another cat.

        Vicki Myron said that she made sure no public money was used to care for Dewey. She and the other librarians paid for his upkeep, plus I think there were some donations. Dewey stayed in the library at night, but Vicki took him home over holidays.

        There was an anti-cat contingent, which continued to send letters of complaint, but she doesn’t go into great detail about it. No, not everybody likes cats! And I’m not sure Dewey won any of them over, though there are some stories about him helping children who were afraid of cats to get over that fear.

        1. Oh no! I feel sorry Dewey had an anti-cat contingent! I am pro-library cat, haha.

          But I do have a friend who works in a library with a (much beloved) pet. It lives in an aquarium, so I guess some issues about allergies, scratches, are not a problem; I have never heard of anyone complaining. But I began to realize after awhile that though the pet and tank had been donated, the library had not thought through the subsequent care and that my friend and other staff were paying for the food and upkeep. Maybe even the vet bills. I don’t know.

          That really bothered me as, since the pet is part of the library, I actually do think the library should be funding it, not the staff members who got stuck with the pet in their department. It is not their pet. They didn’t ask for it! It would be easy to ask for donations specifically for pet care if people are worried about where the money is going.

    2. I should have said it was a temporary moratorium. I’m sure there needed to be time to process the loss, plus to consider some of the issues raised by Krysta in her comment. It couldn’t be a rather casual and spontaneous decision, as it was with Dewey, so the stakes were much higher.

  2. What a heart-warming story, one that hadn’t come across my radar yet which does sound faintly familiar. I’ll keep an eye out for a copy if it ever turns up.

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