ASSOCIATES (2006, March, v. 12, no. 3) -

*Ranganathan’s Three Planes of Work*


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


So you came to work this morning only to face an alien (the little green kind) who asks the distance to Alpha Centuri (which you assume to be her [his, its]) home star. How do you handle this patron?

Or, you are asked (this time by a problem patron) to tell him what DMHO is and whether he needs to worry about it. How do you find out what this DHMO is?

The only thing you need (I know, what did I have with dinner?) is the model proposed by S.R. Ranganathan (see Bear Thoughts #1) called the Three Planes of Work.

Ranganathan suggested that information is created in three steps (each in a separate location or plane). An initial idea occurs in someone’s mind (the idea plane); then it is described or discussed in words (the verbal plane); and finally it is written down (the notation plane).


Idea Plane

Ranganathan and Gopinath (1967) said, “The destiny of any idea created by one mind is the minds of the others. The others too need the ideas to be communicated to them.”

There are lots of approaches to the concept of ideas (the idea of ideas?). Neurolinguists might refer to an excited state of neurons and axons; philosophers might refer to a mental image; mathematicians might refer to a perceived pattern; and psychologists might refer to a particular mental state. For the moment, because it is the most general definition and is understood by the largest audience, let us select the philosophers’ approach. (If you know me, you know how painful writing that last sentence was.)

But even the philosophers’ stance isn’t enough. The idea must live within a mental environment comprising the person’s other ideas and attitudes and feelings. In other words, ideas are part of a system which I will call a mental state. (And if you know me, you know how pleasant writing that last sentence was.) The idea is the black box and the thinker’s mind is the environment which modifies the idea. If you and I have the same idea, therefore, our mental states will be somewhat different.

Verbal Plane

Again, from the Prolegomena to Library Classification (Ranganathan and Gopinath, 1967): “Along with the capacity to create ideas, came also the capacity to develop an articulate language as medium for communication.”

The work of the language plane is that of organization, formalization, and translation which might not be necessary if we could communicate through a Vulcan mind meld. On the other hand, my ideas are often rather amorphous; if I sent this column directly (my mind to your mind) it would probably be seriously confused. I edit as I convert the mental state to words on the page, making (I hope) the confused clear.

Notational Plane

Finally, about notation, Ranganathan and Gopinath (1967) said, “[W]ords are often replaced by symbols pregnant with precise meaning. [O]rdinal numbers are [often] used as helpful symbols. A distinctive contribution of the discipline of classification, as found and as being cultivated in the field of Library Science, is the Notational Plane. Uniqueness of the idea represented by an ordinal number and the total absence of homonyms and synonyms are the distinctive features of the notational plane, when compared with the verbal plane.”

Work on the notation plane is a form of coding. A DDC number represents specific categorical language defined in authorized manuals. The same is true of an LC mark (except that it is alphanumeric). Computers represent work on the language plane with ones and zeros (or their electrical analogues). An older example of work on the notation plane is shorthand writing in which words spoken in the presence of the note taker are converted to marks that most of us can’t read.

Some of these examples beg the question of whether externalized (written and spoken) language represents work on the language plane or work on the notation plane. What, in other words, is the difference between the verbal plane and the notation plane? If Ranganathan’s work is taken literally, ideas presented in spoken language demonstrate work on only two planes (idea and verbal) while ideas presented in written language demonstrate work on all three planes (idea, verbal, and notational).

This strikes me as literally correct but conceptually wrong. It seems to be subtly influenced by the colonial world in which Ranganathan grew up; oral cultures are allowed to work in only two planes while written cultures have the option of a third plane of work. This implies (if it does not directly state) that oral cultures are less than written cultures.

I suggest that spoken language is work on the notation plane. It is, after all, the physical moving of air in a specific pattern which seems to me to be a code. After all, can we say that a deaf patron does no work on the verbal plane? Can we say that a patron who does not speak your language does no work on the verbal plane? I think not. I would rather look at the “verbal” in “work on the verbal plane” as a technical (or jargon) word meaning the first internalized language expression of an idea.


To write this column, I started with a concept (work in the idea plane), thought about how to phrase the concept (work in the language plane), and hit the keys necessary to create the desired symbols on your computer screen (work in the notation plane). This is conventional analysis; in addition, I would suggest that this is only half (the transmission side) of the communication chain. The other side (the reception side) begins with notation which the receiver translates into language and, in turn, into workable concepts. From the view of this received communication, then, notation is anything that can be described in language.


OK. Lecture’s over. Look up and give your brain some air (mine sure needs it). On to the patrons we began with.

You look at the little green alien and, after determining that he (she?) was not simply sick, you begin the reference interview. Through some intergalactic magic (magic is always useful in these cases) you are told that the patron wants to know the average temperature in downtown Goloorg. Obviously there is a problem on the notation plane, for you don’t know where Goloorg is and your reference collection is no help either. Doing work on the verbal plane, you ask, “Where is Goloorg?” (You are doing work in the idea plane by assuming that anything with a downtown is likely a place.) After your patron scratches her (his?) head (at least you assume it is a head), a button is pressed and the readout now says that the patron wants to know the average temperature in downtown Cleveland. You take in the notation and convert the verbal form to the patron’s question.

After the alien leaves and takes off from the parking lot (which was darn crowded to begin with) in walks the eleven year old son of the mayor (if you are in a public library) or the provost (if you are in an academic library). This kid is a permanent pain. Tomorrow’s homework assignment requires that he identify DMHO. He hands you two printouts (one the DMHO homepage at and the other “Dihydrogen Monoxide - Your Natural Friend” at If you are like me, the basic problem requires work on the idea plane (you don’t know what DMHO is). As you think about the problem (there is a real answer, by the way), inspiration strikes, you slap your forehead (definitely work in the notation plane) and quickly answer the kid (or not depending on your library’s homework policy.

So ... do you need to do this kind of analysis all the time? Of course not. But it won’t hurt to know whether a problem derives from the idea plane, verbal plane, or notation plane. Each has its own tools, and problems are not solved when the wrong tools are used.

That is all for now. See you in four months when we will discuss Environmental Information. What’s that? Stay tuned and find out.

Ranganathan, S. R. & Gopinath, M. A. (1967). Prolegomena to Library Classification (Vol. 1) (Third Edition). Bombay, India; Asia Publishing House.

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