ASSOCIATES (2005, November, v. 12, no. 2) -

*Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science*


Frank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University
School of Library and Information Sciences


This is the first in what I hope will be a long series of conversations with you in the e-pages of Associates. My name is Dr. Frank Exner, Little Bear; you can guess where the “Bear Thoughts” name came from. (Come on … guess!)

First I’ll introduce myself. Then I’ll introduce S.R. Ranganathan, the Indian librarian who created Colon Classification, developed the concept of Planes of Work (the subject of our next chat), and wrote the Five Laws of Library Science (the subject of this chat). He is also my hero; I hope his biography adds some Wow! Factor.

Who am I

I am a Squamish Indian originally from British Columbia, Canada. Currently I live in Durham, North Carolina and can be found at North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Sciences.

When I was a student, I always wanted to know why I should listen to someone. So here are my credentials. I have a Master of Information Science degree (MIS) and Master of Library Science degree (MLS) from North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences. I completed my doctorate (DPhil) by distance education from South Africa’s University of Pretoria Department of Information Science. My doctoral thesis’ title was The impact of naming practices among North American Indians on name authority control.

My wife is a children’s librarian in Durham, NC, and her book, Practical puppetry, A-Z, was recently published by McFarland Publications. Our daughter is a reference librarian at North Carolina A&T State University. Our daughter-in-law also has her MLS. Yes, we are wild and crazy folk.

Who was S. R. Ranganathan

The Wikipedia [](bless its electronic soul) says, “Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan (1892 - 1972) was an innovative librarian from India. [One of] his most notable contributions [was] his five laws of library science. He is considered to be the father of library science in India.

Ranganathan earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in mathematics from Madras Christian College [earning] his teaching licensure.

In 1923, the University of Madras created the post of University Librarian. [None of] the applicants had training in librarianship, and Ranganathan's handful of papers satisfied the requirement that the candidate should have a research background. His sole knowledge of librarianship came from an Encyclopædia Britannica article he read days before the interview. [Receiving] the appointment in January of 1924, Ranganthan [was able to] travel to London, to study Western librarianship practices.

Ranganathan traveled to University College London, [where he] latched onto the problem of classification, a subject typically taught by rote in library programs of the time. [He] returned [to India] with a powerful passion for libraries and librarianship and a vision of its importance for the Indian nation [and held] the position of University Librarian at the University of Madras for twenty years.

Ranganthan was considered by many to be a workaholic. During his two decades in Madras, he produced his five laws of library science.

After two decades of serving as librarian at Madras, [he] accepted a professorship in library science at Hindu University in Banaras; by the time he left four years later, he had classified over 100,000 items personally.

Ranganathan's final major achievement was the establishment of the Documentation Research and Training Centre in Bangalore in 1962, where he served as honorary director for five years. In 1965, he was honored by the Indian government for his contributions to the field with the title of ‘National Research Professor.’"

Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science

S. R. Ranganathan’s five laws of librarianship are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

The laws were written in India in 1931. Books were pretty much the only media in library collections and any group of people that might include men (whether it did or not) were given masculine pronouns. The laws are often ‘modernized,’ but, since I like to quote what people actually said, I hope you will forgive me for sticking to the original.

Everyone (including me) has the same reaction when they first read these laws, “And your point is?” The laws seem obvious, almost cliché, certainly not the result of deep thought. But wait, there’s more (not available in any store).

Of course “books are for use.” Even doorstops (which are often books) are for use! What else would a book be for? And then I thought of government documents; because they are not often cataloged (and because they are identified by a very strange notation) these books are not used very much. Maybe you can think of more such cases. I guess “books are for use” is one of those obvious statements that is often observed in the breach.

“Every reader his book” and “every book its reader” seem to achieve the level of “Well, Duh!” But, again, these are actually radical statements. How many of your libraries are almost temples to bestsellers (whether popular or academic)? Personally, I’m proud of often buying books whose sales are below 1,000,000 on If I am the reader and Construction of depth version of Colon classification: A manual by M.A. Gopinath (’s number 3,970,457 in sales) is the book (and I do have this book on my shelf), the library world can’t help me much.

Ranganathan’s fourth Law of Library Science is “Save the time of the reader.” So often we are trying to save our own (or management’s) time that the patron loses out. It is common wisdom in business that manufacturing a product right the first time may cost a dollar, while fixing it later costs ten dollars. Usually this wisdom is ignored when companies try to meet schedules, but it is still true. So companies usually end up paying the nine dollar penalty. In libraries we end up with unhappy patrons. The world is hard enough these days without unhappy patrons.

Finally, “The library is a growing organism.” Oh so true. The collection is growing like a weed; material waiting to be cataloged could make a forty-acre farm; and staff … well let’s just say that when the library grows, the staff shrinks. Too much for too few becomes even more for even fewer.

So, Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science really do speak to us as library staff. But of what use are they? Mostly, like any basic truth, they are quiet reminders. Am I rushed (not uncommon in a library)? The fourth law can keep me focused on service. Am I weeding books? It would be a good idea to keep the second law in mind. Has a patron just asked for a book that is so esoteric I am ready to snap? Remember the third law. And the effects of the fifth law always surround us.


Now you know something about me, and, I hope, are interested. Librarianship is a truly universal profession; we need to explore the best thinkers in our past and present. This month’s example, S.R. Ranganathan, was an Indian who was named a national treasure for all of the ways he advanced librarianship for all of us.

His Five Laws of Library Science are a simple set of statements to guide every level of our professional lives: management, reference practice, cataloging practice, or children’s practice. It even informs (or should inform) library science education. Not bad for the obvious.

And that’s Little Bear’s little thought for now. See you next issue.

About Us | Subscribe/Unsubscribe | Editors | Submit | Current Issue | Archives | Home