Free Association Around Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science

Picking up briefly on Peter Murray Rust’s exhortation to the keynote attendees at ILI2009 that libraries must rediscover Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science to their heart if they are to survive:

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I thought I post some free association thoughts on what the five laws say to me. Note that I’m not a librarian, have never studied library science and don’t normally work for the library, though I currently am on an Arcadia Fellowship with the Cambridge University Library. Which is to say, my interpretation may not be the conventional, or accepted one…

So here we go:

Books are for use.
Hmmm… Books are for use… they are they to be used… they exist to be read… they exist to impart knowledge, information, emotion. They exist to communicate. As such, maybe they are social objects? But maybe also, they contain information or knowledge that enables things to be done, ideas to be understood? Maybe they are the next step in helping us do something, achieve something?

In a 2003 blog post outlining ideas for what was to become The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, John Battelle describes Google’ssearch operation as a database of intentions:

The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular hold a massive amount of this data (ie MSN, Google, and Yahoo). This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind – a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture.

That is, every search we make is an expression of some sort of intention. There is a point to every search.

So maybe in the same way, a book might be able to satisfy some intention? Or maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, because second up we have:

Every reader his [or her] book.
So at any point in time, there is a book that I need, that will somehow “help”? This ties back to a book that can satisfy an intention I have, perhaps? My current problem, or situation, is unlikely to be one that has never been met before, never been addressed by someone, somewhere, in some particular book?

Every book its reader.
And conversely, at any point in time, for every book there is someone who would benefit from reading that book? The book is a satisfaction of some intention? There is someone who would benefit from being recommended that book, maybe? (The ideal search engine would be an answer engine, would return only the single answer you need for a particular query, maybe?)

Save the time of the User.
Which means what? Give them the book that they need, in a timely fashion? Make it easy for them to discover the right book, or the right part of the book, that they need, with the minimum of fuss, or noise in the recommendations? Give them full text search, extended indexes in the form of semantic tags and on-demand access, maybe?!;-)

The library is a growing organism.
The library is a living thing. As a living thing, it must adapt to survive. As a living thing, it inhabits an ecosystem, a network, a network characterised by the making and breaking of new and old connections, by the flow of resources across those connections.

Hmmm… so how are these laws actually interpreted by the Library Science community, I wonder? And to what extent do they apply in the context of search engine queries, results and the resources pointed to by those results? Would it be fair to say that it is Google, rather than Library, that has taken these laws to its heart? Would it be fair to say that several of the laws at least hint at making effective recommendations to users, as Lorcan Dempsey suggests in Recommendation and Ranganathan?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

4 thoughts on “Free Association Around Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science”

  1. The Five Laws of Library Science is available in a slightly imperfectly digitised form at

    I think that if you look at Ranganathan’s exposition on his laws it becomes immediately apparent that he is interested in very far reaching issues. For example, behind the simplicity of the 2nd law (every reader his/her book) is the fundamental pricinpal that everyone is entitled to education.

    The thoughts you have around the 4th law (save the time of the user) definitely (for me) echo the meaning of the original. A great quote from the text about requesting texts in closed stack libraries is “The average amount of time that a reader has thus to waste at the counter … was about half an hour”. Ranganathan goes on to describe (sometimes in very specific detail) aspects of the physical arrangement of the library and aspects of the catalogue that can literally save the reader time. I’m convinced that Ranganathan would have been championing intelligent recommendation systems if they had been available.

    I think it is significant and relevant that Ranganathan talks about ‘open access’. This has clear echos today, although the context is different (he was talking about open access vs closed stack libraries).

  2. i’m a student of library and information science, pg course, and it never stops surprising me of how far reaching ranganathan’s words actually are and how much impact his five laws have, even now.

    feels good to hear abt him from someone who’s not Indian. =)

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