We’ve got laws, y’all! Librarianship is a profession that is deceptively complex. At some point soon we’ll talk about how that connects with stuff like debates over censorship, a library nerd discussion of graphic novels, and maybe a post on Melville Dewey, which will be somewhat less adulatory than this one… but, for now, I thought I’d just bust out a post on a topic that is typically discussed in Foundations of Librarianship courses in library school. Which sounds dry, but really is foundational to what we do… much more so than Melville Dewey, even in spite of the organizational system that is so ubiquitous within public libraries in spite of its flaws. 

So, Ranganathan’s Laws. They were published in 1931 they are quite simple… and still relevant today. Here they are: 

  1. Books are for use. 
  1. Every reader his or her [or their] book.* 
  1. Every book its reader. 
  1. Save the time of the reader. 
  1. A library is a growing organism. 

They seem pretty obvious, right? Like, we read them and think: “well, of course, that makes sense and does reflect what libraries do seem to do.”  BUT BUT BUT the reason libraries are like that isn’t because libraries are just like that, it is BECAUSE OF THE FOUNDATIONAL WORK THAT MR. RAGNANATHAN DID BACK IN 1931. 

A couple of interesting tidbits about this dude: he was actually a mathematician first. He applied to work in the library at the University of Madras and the application process took so long he actually forgot he had applied for it (this fact is hilarious to librarians because it shows that some things have NOT changed in 90 years… except, of course, at JCLS… our HR department rocks, check out our postings here). He had very limited knowledge of librarianship at the time (seriously, he read an article about librarianship from the Encyclopedia Britannica as interview prep… note to prospective JCLS job candidates: don’t try this). He came to the position with his mathematician’s brain, quickly decided he had made the wrong decision, but was coaxed to head to England to see how other libraries did it and was promised his lectureship back if he went and was still not feeling it when he returned… and the rest, as they say, is library history. 

The laws themselves, while obvious-seeming, were revolutionary. His thinking is what moved libraries from thinking of themselves as archival repositories of circulating objects that HAPPEN to contain information, to thinking about themselves as clearinghouses of information. The books aren’t the point, it’s what is inside them and who is using them that is important… and Ranganathan is generally credited with being the person to have pointed this very important fact out to the rest of the world’s librarians.  

While all the laws are critical to libraries and what we do, my favorite is the 5th Law. Libraries grow and change. Libraries have changed a lot since 1931: the introduction of computers, the sunsetting of the card catalog, the evolution of how collections are defined (libraries aren’t JUST books), the integration of social workers into our staff, and so much more. They are still changing. The pandemic has made us change in ways we’d never have expected two years ago. We will keep changing. You will see more of how we are growing and changing as we complete our strategic planning process and share the plan with the community in the summer of 2022. What will remain the same will be the foundations on which the work we do is built. As we build up to the rollout of our plan, I’m going to keep going with this theme of library history. Next up: the beginnings of children’s librarianship with a polarizing figure in library history, Anne Caroll Moore.  

*A note on pronoun use: I have a T-shirt. No, really, stick with me. It has the 2nd law on it. I am an unapologetically nerdy librarian, as has been firmly established with prior posts, so this is hardly earthshattering news. The 2nd law on my shirt has revised pronouns, though: “Every reader his/her/their book.” So, in the spirit of inclusion, I’ve added “or their” above. I went back to the original source material and verified that (a) Ranganathan published his laws in English (he lived and worked in India) so the pronouns were authorial and not translated and (b) he did use “his or her”… he did, even in 1931 when the generic “him” would have been acceptable. Well done, Mr. Ranganathan! Basically I librarianed the heck out of Ranganathan to write this post because it’s been, umm, a while since I took Foundations of Librarianship. Also: you can read the whole book here, it’s actually really readable.