by Meghan Dowell, Consulting Librarian at Beloit College Memorial Library

Imagine all the information you need on a daily basis, and how easy you have access to it…  Now imagine what it would look like to try to find that information without the five laws of library.  Information systems require architecture and are undergirded by a set of ethicial assumptions.  And we have S.R. Ranganathan to thank for both.

Siyali Ramamrita (S.R.) Ranganathan was a mathematician and prolific librarian born in southern India. He is regarded as the ‘Father of Library Science in India’ and National Library Day is celebrated on August 12th of every year, which is his birthday. S.R. Ranganathan is most well known for the following contributions in his field: Five Laws of Library Science and the Colon Classification (CC) system.

The Five Laws of Library Science have been adopted and incorporated into policy by libraries throughout the world. Variations of these laws have been applied to social media, internet usage, knowledge, and media. The original laws are:

  • Books are for use
  • Every reader their book
  • Every book its reader
  • Save the time of the reader
  • Libraries are growing organisms
Books are for use

Throughout history, access to books has changed dramatically. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the process to print books was arduous and expensive. It was not uncommon for books to be secured to a desk with chain or rope while they were being viewed. While access to books has increased, closed stacks were still primary practice in many academic libraries during the better part of the twentieth century. Imagine not being able to browse or have to wait for someone to fetch a volume, only to find out it wasn’t exactly what you needed. While special collections and archives do their work to preserve and care for rare materials, these books are still available for use within a controlled environment.

Every reader their book

Likely the most controversial of the five laws, Ranganathan wrote any person should have access to books, or more broadly read, information. He believed “Education for All” had to be accepted before “Books for All”.

The second law experienced many hurdles. The first and largest was the reluctance to share books widely. High ranking officials were concerned that admitting the general public to libraries would be dangerous and would pave the way to a revolution. Education and therefore books were generally only available to affluent [white] men. Providing freely available information threatened an exclusive privilege.

Access to freely available information is and has always been in constant danger. In the early to mid-1900s in the United States many public libraries were segregated and in some cities did not exist for people of color. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did it outlaw discrimination of public spaces, including libraries.

Every book its reader

Ranganathan saw the third law as making the first and second possible. It concerns the the “devices” a librarian employs to ensure readers reach their books. The most visible such device is the “Open Access System”, meaning an open shelving system. Readers are more likely to find their book and vice versa if they are allowed to freely browse the collection and have serendipitous discovery. Within an open shelf system, the organization of the books is just as important.

“Arrangement by size or (except for in literature) by the alphabetic order of the author’s name is as arbitrary as arrangement by the colour of the cover. Ordinarily, it is not the size of a book or its author (except in literature) that determines the kind of person that will use it. It is its subject-matter” (p.304).

A more technical device a librarian employs is how the reader finds the book through a catalog. Ranganathan speaks about the card catalog, however in today’s libraries we have digital catalogs where library staff can easily expand on the subject headings by adding keywords.

Save the time of the reader

Many of the devices in the third law make the fourth law possible. The reader being able to easily search the catalog and locate a book on an open shelf might sound like more work for the reader, instead of the librarian. Closed stacks create a wait time from materials being retrieved by the librarian. If the first request isn’t quite right, another trip must be made. This is where the concept of librarian as gatekeeper developed. While easy to find and read signage might seem like a basic feature of most modern libraries, do not take them for granted. The signage is one of the reader’s first encounters with the library – it will either help or hinder the reader.

Libraries are growing organizations

“An organism which ceases to grow will petrify and perish” (p.382). The library flexes and bends to meet the needs of its users. This pertains to size of buildings, size and focus of collection, types of materials, hours, services, furniture, and location. When Ranganathan wrote these laws, e-books were an idea of the future but he would have expected them to be included as their inclusion abides by all five laws.


All quotes are taken from Ranganathan, S.R. The Five Laws of Library Science. London: Edward Goldston, 1931.

Beloit College Library photos credited to Nicole Helgrel ’12, who featured our own college library in her own blog article “Libraries I Love.”  Thanks Nicole!

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