Open Conversation: Ranganathan Revisited

openconversationlogoJan: In your inspiring Hyperlinked Service slides you start with a Ranganathan update. Shiyali Ranganathan ‘made’ his Five Laws of Libary Science in 19312. What makes these ve library laws look so incredibly up-do-date af- ter almost eighty years? e laws speak about connecting with users, about turning your library into a human growing organism, about facilitating and empowering the user. How did libraries apply these laws in the years after 1931?

Michael: Let’s print them here for our readers. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of Ranganathan’s insights. The laws are: books are for use; every reader his (or her) book; every book its reader; save the time of the user; the library is a growing organism. I think it’s been an ongoing progression since 1931. The laws guided librarians through some very interesting times: WWII, the cold war, the turbulent 60s and forward. I think along the way they got lost for some libraries. One reason I have included the laws in the opening slides of my presentations is the stories I hear of libraries that lock down materials or don’t provide the materials users want. Somehow along the way, some libraries became more like gatekeepers and less like the open, growing entity Ranganathan envisioned.

With technology—computers, the web, and now social/mobile tools—the laws have changed a bit. Each semester I teach our Intro to LIS course, we study the laws and I ask my students how they might rewrite them for the 21st century. Here is what one class came up with:

  1. Information is for use and it’s for everyone.
  2. Every piece of information is valuable and every user will find value in something.
  3. Eliminate barriers between the user and the information.
  4. The library is a growing and evolving organism.

Jan: I like these modern interpretations! These laws should be studied in Dutch public libraries too. The first time I read about Ranganathan was in an article about the long tail  by Lorcan Dempsey . He interpreted three of the laws like this:

  1. It is not enough for materials to be present within the system: they have to be readily accessible (every reader his or her book).
  2. Potentially interested readers have to be aware of them (every book its reader).
  3. The system for matching supply and demand has to be efficient (save the time of the user).

Here Dempsey interpreted the laws in terms of organizing supply and demand of library media in the best possible way and on the largest possible scale thus creating a long tail of library materials. Dutch public libaries focus more and more on marketing (every book its reader) but less on human beings (every reader its book) and much time and energy is invested in technology “to save the time and energy of the user”. I think for the future of libraries it will be more important to reinterpret the fifth Ranganathan law: the library is a growing organism. Can we see the library in the way Jeff Jarvis describes : As an elegant organisation, “provide platforms that enable communities to do what they want to do, share what they want to share, know what they need to know together”?

Michael: I appreciate both Dempsey’s and Jarvis’s thoughts. The idea of the library facilitating and encouraging community building as one of its primary roles is what I see for our future as well. In fact, with the advances we’re seeing in user-centered design and user involvement, mobile technologies and library applications via such devices and a returning emphasis not on tech but on the human connections technology can foster, could we be so bold to add statements like these to the conversation? The library is built by and for the user. The library is everywhere. The library enables and encourages its community.

Jan: I think these statements are true challenges. Let’s talk about them in a next conversation.