Father’s Day is coming up soon, so we thought we’d pay homage to Shiyali Ramamrita (S. R.) Ranganathan. As described in the Wikipedia article about him, Ranganathan “is considered to be the father of library science, documentation, and information science in India and is widely known throughout the rest of the world for his fundamental thinking in the field.” He is also regarded by many information science professionals throughout the world as the father of library science. That’s a lot of fathering.

Ranganathan is perhaps best known for devising a system of faceted classification that had enormous influence on classification and indexing science. We’ve already observed (in “Ranganathan, Classification, and British Toys”) about how his career path, along with a peek into the window of a toy store, provided the background and inspiration for his Colon Classification system.

In 1931, Ranganathan’s book The Five Laws of Library Science was published. While some of the more specific recommendations in the text have been rendered obsolete by technological advances, there are many passages that are still relevant. Let’s have a sampling.

From pages 1, 6-7:

The first law of Library Science is: BOOKS ARE FOR USE. No one will question the correctness of this law. But, in actual practice, the story is different. The law is seldom borne in mind by library authorities. We may examine the history of any aspect of library practice and we shall find ample evidence of a deplorable neglect of this law.

[This is followed by several illustrative anecdotes focusing on library authorities who fortunately have remained nameless.]

On the other hand a modern librarian, who has faith in the law that ‘BOOKS ARE FOR USE,’ is happy only when his readers make his shelves constantly empty. It is not the books that go out that worry him. It is the stay-at-home volumes that perplex and distress him. He too will constantly cross the yard to meet his Agassizes. But he will go to them, not to snatch away the books they are using, but to distribute the new arrivals that need to be introduced to them as rapidly as possible.

From page 49 (where it’s evident that “indexing” wasn’t an entirely accepted word for the activity quite yet, at least not in a library context):

Not infrequently one comes across a bumptious upstart, who has the cheek to say, “What is there in indexing?” meaning by ‘indexing’, Cataloguing. One only wishes that he was allowed to try his hand at ‘indexing’ for a couple of months to discover for himself what a mess he is capable of making.

From page 50, which brings to mind the love-hate relationship between taxonomists and subject matter experts:

Another, a specialist quite jealous of the rights of his line of experts, may make a flippant remark, “That is not the way to classify. This is the way to catalogue. Reference-work is not in your province. It is the preserve of the Professors” and so on. One has to tell him “Mr. Specialist, I am a specialist in my line as much as you are, Sir, in yours. If your field is clouded in mystery and needs prolonged formal initiation, so is mine. Remember what you will think of any uninitiated Tom, Dick or Harry who attempts to poke his nose into your sphere.”

From pages 293-294, on the Second Law, Every reader his/her book:

It is a peculiar sort of knowledge that is needed to find for EVERY PERSON HIS BOOK. People at all levels will seek the help of the Library Staff to find their books. It may be a freshman that wants help to prepare for the scholarship examination; it may be a senior student who wants to lead a debate on feminism; it may be a professor who wants to settle a point in the phonology of the Dravidian vowel system; it may be a physicist who wants the book that will give him just enough and no more of Matrices to understand Heisenberg’s treatment of Wave Mechanics. …

No person can depend on his memory to say what his library resources are on such a bewildering range of subjects. The Library Staff have necessity to depend on certain recognised mechanical aids, to discharge their obligations in helping EVERY PERSON TO FIND HIS BOOK.

From pages 382-383, and largely true of taxonomies and research databases, as well as physical libraries:

The Fifth Law is: A LIBRARY IS A GROWING ORGANISM. It is an accepted biological fact that a growing organism alone will survive. An organism which ceases to grow will petrify and perish. The Fifth Law invites our attention to the fact that the library, as an institution, has all the attributes of a growing organism. A growing organism takes in new matter, casts off old matter, changes in size and takes new shapes and forms. Apart from sudden and apparently discontinuous changes involved in metamorphosis, it is also subject to a slow continuous change which leads to what is known as ‘variation’, in biological parlance, and to the evolution of new forms. … The one thing that has been persisting through all those changes of form has been the vital principle of life. So it is with the library.

From pages 397-398, where the Fifth Law leads us to a discussion of classification approaches:

Another important matter that needs to be examined in the light of the Fifth Law is the classification of books. In the first place, as A LIBRARY IS A GROWING ORGANISM and as knowledge itself is growing, it is necessary that the “classification must be comprehensive, embracing all past and present knowledge and allowing places for any possible additions to knowledge”. Indeed this has been set down by Mr. Sayers [William Charles (W.C.) Berwick Sayers, Ranganathan’s mentor in library science at the University of London] as the first canon of classification. To quote Sayers again, “A classification must be elastic, expansible, and hospitable in the highest degree. That is to say, it must be so constructed that any new subject may be inserted into it without dislocating its sequence”. Cases like that of Wave Mechanics, Matrices, Raman Effect, Internal Combustion Engine, Radium, Behaviourism, Dalton Plan and the entire subject of Sociology have had to be accommodated within living memory. It can not be said that all the printed schemes in force have come quite unscathed out of this trial.

And we’ll conclude with an excerpt from page 414, where Ranganathan looks towards the future (as do all good fathers):

What further stages of evolution are in store for this GROWING ORGANISM — the library — we can only wait and see. Who knows that a day may not come — at least [Orson] Wells has pictured a world in which dissemination of knowledge will be effected by direct thought transfer, in the Dakshinamurti fashion, without the invocation of the spoken or the printed word — that a day may not come when the dissemination of knowledge, which is the vital function of libraries, will be realised by libraries even by means other than those of the printed book?

Barbara Gilles, Taxonomist
Access Innovations, Inc.

Photo, S. R. Ranganathan’s photo at City Central Library, Hyderabad, India. Photo by Krzna, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:S._R._Ranganathan.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0.