Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

S R Ranganathan: The Five Laws of Library Science

The Books That Made Me week

First law: Books are for use
Second law: Every reader his or her book
Third law: Every book its reader
Fourth law: Save the time of the reader
Fifth law: The library is a growing organism

This is a fabulous idea of Nikki’s, to make us think of a book that left us in a different place after we’d read it. I do wonder if she’s feeling a little shocked at what it has yielded, in about 50% of participating Foxes, though.

I could have chosen Persuasion, the novel that turned me on to literature. I already have written (at great length) about North and South, the novel that brought me online, and indirectly changed the path of my career, so I can’t choose that. Instead I’m going to talk about a book that takes me back to my education as a librarian, mostly about its headlines, and a little about its author and his influence on me.

The five laws are deceptively simple and naive – rather like their author. Anyone new to them might well ask ‘Is that all? So Librarians just need a Postgraduate Diploma in the Bl**din’ Obvious then?’ Well, no – not entirely: there are skills, systems and technologies to learn and apply. These laws underpin them, and explain why complicated codes of cataloguing rules and classification schemes are necessary tools, not ‘a professional conspiracy’ to make the discipline needlessly arcane, and why they need to be applied and then used with professional skill and care.

When I went to Library School, it was quite a rude awakening, being introduced to a discipline that had scientific and technical elements, after three years of a language and literature degree. Librarianship has its heros and gurus: which ones have readers at large heard of? Melvil Dewey, probably, perhaps Panizzi (pioneer Librarian of the British Museum), Casanova (a personal favourite), and some famous for other achievements who people are surprised to learn are librarians by profession – writers Borges and Larkin for instance. I’d be surprised (and would be interested to learn, so do please comment and put me right) if many outside the profession had heard of S R Ranganathan.

Born in 1892 in Tamil Nadhu, S R Ranganathan started his career as a professor of mathematics at Madras University. In 1924 he unexpectedly found himself appointed University Librarian. With no library skills or education, he found the job frustrating, and begged leave of absence to come to University College, London, to take their pioneering course in Librarianship. There his mathematical mind led him into research into the theory of classification, and to reflect on the shortcomings of the major schemes, which were not strong enough to eliminate ambiguities. On his return to India he continued to reflect, as he remedied the shortcomings of Madras’s university library, and gained his reputation as an influential thinker not just in library science, but in the place and value of libraries in society.

I found him an intriguing figure, responsible both for my ‘light-bulb moments’ and my most discouraging half-hours when I was learning my professional discipline. There was the nerdy perception that he was responsible for a breakthrough in the theory of classification, and created a scheme (Colon Classification) that was close to perfection as a consistent scheme to describe accurately the multi-faceted contents of any given book. So close to perfection was it that our tutor in Classification, Derek Langridge (another guru of mine), was affectionately celebrated for basing his lectures around it, even though none of his students would ever be likely to use it in anger, as Dewey Decimal had a grip of public libraries, and a range of schemes, not including Colon, in academic and commercial libraries. Colon was notoriously in use at that time in only one UK library, that of the Metal Box Company. But Ranganathan was the arch-theorist, so we all dutifully studied his scheme.

Then there were the 5 Laws – so simple, so easy to understand, so many worlds away from the arcana of Colon Classification. These looked outward, and described the value of libraries, and their power in liberating the reader. The book that describes the laws is written in Ranganthan’s unique style. His personality shines through – rather shy, self-deprecating, scholarly, but with simplicity and a dry, rather donnish wit. Each law is expounded through anecdotes, analogies and quirky dialogues. If anyone looks at these laws and asks why they need saying, reading the book will convince. A law is designed to reveal in some cases what a library should NOT be, but often is. For instance, Law 1 Books are for use, is a rallying cry for libraries to be places where the books are freely available to the readers themselves. They are not guarded by custodians with flaming swords. They are not locked away. The reader can browse; the books are on display and accessible; they are easy to find; the library is an attractive place to be, and belongs to the reader. As described, this law underpins all we apply now to library design and to the service we give to readers. Laws 2 and 3 remind the Librarian why we are selecting, processing and displaying the books in the library, and put the reader and the book, not the librarian, at the heart of the collection. Law 4 underpins professional skill and standards. Law 5 reminds us that libraries are constantly changing, not necessarily constantly growing, and never seen as complete – there is always more to add (and stuff to remove); they have the potential to be dynamic, exciting places. Each of the laws encapsulates an important truth; none of the laws can stand alone. They really are rather beautiful.

I’d like to make the case for the 5 laws to be much more widely known, an inspiration for readers and for writers, not just for librarians. The first three laws in particular (Books are for use; Every reader his or her book; Every book its reader) must surely resonate with writers, as they work so hard to put on the page what they know they have to say to readers. I’ve not consciously returned to Ranganthan’s writing for many years, but I was inspired to look again by two small incidents recently. First of all, I was uplifted to have a young professional colleague spontaneously mention Ranganathan, and tell me that the 5 laws helped him to explain to his organisation the value of its library service where other attempts failed. Then a librarian friend found a very Ranganathan-inspired quote from Kate Morton’s novel The Distant Hours and posted it online. So I’m grateful to them for reminding me what a great thinker Ranganthan is, and just how much he has been a personal influence on me.

I’ve worked in libraries and as a library service manager (not the same, and not so much fun) for the best part of 40 years now. When I analyse my career, its inspiration boils down to Ranganathan’s 5 laws, so easy to remember, and blessedly simple.

Here is a brief biography of Rangananthan’s life and work.

S. R. Ranganathan: The Five Laws of Library Science. [First edition] Madras Library Association (Madras, India) and Edward Goldston (London, UK), 1931.

There have been numerous editions, the latest being 2006, but none currently in print. The text is available online from the University of Arizona Digital Library of Information Science and Technology (DLIST).

The image illustrating this piece, ‘Unboxing The Five Laws of Library Science’ comes from Rochelle, just rochelle’s Flickr photostream, and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

20 comments on “S R Ranganathan: The Five Laws of Library Science

  1. ChrisCross53
    May 12, 2011

    Having been away for few days and caught up on the essential things that have to be done on one’s return, I’ve turned to Vulpes Libris to see what I missed and been welcomed back by a real goodie.

    Hilary, that is fascinating and had me hooked from beginning to end. I had never heard of Ranganathan, or his five laws, but they do make a lot of sense, and should be better known. Thank you!

  2. littlenavyfish
    May 12, 2011

    Such a great post! Thank you for brightening up my revision-strewn morning 🙂

  3. hrileena
    May 12, 2011

    Well, I’ve heard of S.R.Ranganathan before, but I should probably mention that I have a few Tamil friends, and two of them have grandfathers who studied at the University of Madras.

  4. sshaver
    May 12, 2011

    I like these five laws, and might suggest a sixth:

    The library exists to shelter classic literature, not just best-sellers.

  5. Shelley
    May 12, 2011

    Oh, and I can’t resist a seventh law: Tell your legislators to support your local library.

  6. Jackie
    May 12, 2011

    As someone who loves libraries, I found this very interesting. I’ve not heard of Mr. Ranganathan, the 5 Laws or the Colon Classification,so I learned a lot from this post.I like the idea of the Laws & think they encapsulate all that libraries are supposed to be.
    I do wonder about “every book its reader”, because there’s some books that are probably seldom looked at. I feel bad for them.

  7. elizabethashworth
    May 12, 2011

    I never realised there was an alternative to Dewey. I admire the Metal Box Company for daring to be different – especially as I once knew someone who had worked for them.

    Thanks Hilary – fascinating article.

  8. Llyn
    May 13, 2011

    I learnt the 5 Laws in Library school, and now that I am finally running my own library, use the 5 Laws as our mission statement/operating philosophy.
    They are a good reminder of what is important in our profession, even if, at times, we are apt to forget Rule 1.

  9. Moira
    May 13, 2011

    I loved reading this. What a humane, sensible and lovely man he must have been. Some of my earliest, happiest memories are of the library. It was the first place I was allowed to go by myself – I felt so grown up, walking in with my library books, and the Librarian was always so kind and welcoming and often turned a blind eye to me taking out a ‘grown ups’ book when I couldn’t find anything in the children’s section.

    Somehow, modern libraries don’t have the same feel to them – it’s all the high-tech stuff, I suppose. A bit like museums with their interactive displays and all-singing, all-dancing gismos. I like leaning on glass cabinets and reading faded labels …

  10. rosyb
    May 13, 2011

    Loved this. I learn something new from every one of your posts, Hilary. This should be put on the Save the Libraries website to remind people of these simple but important rules.

  11. lisa
    May 15, 2011

    Fascinating post, Hilary. I must admit that I raised my eyebrows when you mentioned this title in the den but I actually found this piece very moving. Great stuff.

  12. Nikki
    May 15, 2011

    I think I’ve heard of S R Ranganathan, I can’t remember where though. I truly loved this review, it’s such an insight in you and why you chose your profession. It’s also interesting for me to see “behind the scenes” because I use the library so much. A particularly good review given what they’re after doing with the libraries! *shakes fist*

  13. sakura
    May 27, 2011

    What a fascinating post. I haven’t heard of Ranganathan before but he’s in a long line of brilliant scientists from Tamil Nadu who came to study in the UK during that time. And very interesting about UCL having the first library studies course in the UK. I didn’t realise how scientific library studies was although I always used to wonder how the classification system was formulated.

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  15. lesego masie
    March 14, 2013

    today is the first time i heard of ranganathan from my college she told she was taught about at university of Botswana, um a graduate of University of Botswana but i have never heard about it

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  20. Sasikala C
    July 21, 2018

    Really good. Thank you .I learnt something new from your post

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This entry was posted on May 12, 2011 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction, Uncategorized.



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