Ranganathan Killed the Library Theorist

Courtesy tinfoilraccoon on flickr.com

I have been thinking a lot about the philosophical underpinnings of librarianship lately and recently reread Andre Cossette’s essay: Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, (1976) which was recently translated from French by Rory Litwin, and is available from Litwin’s Library Juice Press. This essay illustrates the lack of philosophical and theoretical thinking in librarianship that has been troubling me as of late, and lays out a “philosophy of librarianship” grounded in the humanist/realist schools of thought that I feel could  bring about a renaissance to our profession and pull us out of  the malaise that we are currently mired in professionally. I’ll write more about this in a later post, but I want to focus for a moment on why we are currently in this state in the profession.

There is no doubt that S. R. Ranganathan is one of the greats in the field of library science and in the profession of librarianship. Ranganathan is most famous for his Five Laws of Library Science which form much of the foundations of librarianship and are still taught in library and information science programs today. The Five Laws (1957) seek to “reduce the numerous empirical facts of the world of libraries to a small number of basic principles” (p. 20), and are as follows:

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

Much has been written on the Five Laws of Library science in the nearly 60 years since Ranganathan posited them. Librarians and scholars have sought to broaden, refine, or update the Laws, and some have confused the Laws as a “philosophy of librarianship” or some sort of “unified guiding Truth” to the profession as Cossette has illustrated. According to Cossette, Ranganathan himself misunderstood the nature of the social sciences, and sought to create “normative principles” with the Five Laws, instead of more generally accepted aims of social science theory: “to state the existence of regular patterns and necessary relationships among social facts, that is, to examine society as it is.” (p. 12)

I would also argue that when Ranganathan posited these five “normative principles” as “laws”, he effectively shut the door on further debate within the profession about the nature of librarianship, when he named these five principles, essentially law-like generalizations, laws. Laws are typically the realm of the physical sciences and are generally accepted truths that have been tested and confirmed or corroborated. Lawlike generalizations, on the other hand, are “statements in generalized conditional form that fill all the criteria of laws, but have not been tested and confirmed or corroborated. To say that a lawlike statement is highly confirmed, or corroborated, or believed to be true, is different from saying that it is absolutely true, or true-with-certainty, or “True” (with capital “T”).” (Hunt, 2002,p. 148)

By naming these five “lawlike generalizations” “Laws”, Ranganathan placed them on the pedestal of capital-T Truth, and closed the book, albeit accidentally I believe, on testing, expanding, corroborating, and ultimately refuting these principles. Theory in librarianship has suffered because Ranganathan declared the Five Laws of Library Science the capital-L Laws of our profession in 1957.  Case closed. No further discussion necessary.

As Cossette concludes in his discussion of Ranganathan:

“[W]e can conclude that The Five Laws of Library Science is a work of science expressed in a philosophical language. Ranganathan wants to uncover the laws of librarianship, which constitutes a scientific method, using a language that leads us to believe it is philosophy. It is this ambiguity in the thought of Ranganathan that has led his followers to their incorrect interpretation. They believe that they have found a philosophy of librarianship because the author spoke of “normative principles”, but it is very much a matter of science.” (p. 13)

My hope is that through an empirical look at generalizations like the Five Laws we can begin the work of creating new theory, grounded in the social study of the phenomenon of libraries and librarianship, and philosophy that seeks to answer why what we are doing is important to society. Let’s start of renaissance of thought in librarianship and move past Ranganathan. He’s served us for almost 60 years, but it’s time we move the profession forward. Let’s resurrect the library theorist.

Cossette, A. (2009). Humanism and libraries: An essay on the philosophy of librarianship. (R. Litwin, Trans.). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press. (Original work published 1976).

Hunt, S. D. (2002). Foundations of marketing theory: Toward a general theory of marketing. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Ranganathan, S. R. (1957). The five laws of library science. Madras: The Madras Library Association.


11 thoughts on “Ranganathan Killed the Library Theorist

  1. What about Jesse H. Shera? His writing is far from restricted by Ranganathans laws. I never took the five laws very seriously. I look at them as good reminders of how to think about libraries and readers in daily life. I think that a Grand Unifying Theory of Librarianship is a too elusive concept to be realized. Librarianship is a too fragmented field to be theory friendly. Much of librarianship might benefit more from borrowing theory from other fields like mathematics, social science, humanities etc. I would reccomend a book by the danish sociologist Flyvbjerg: Making Social Science Matter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Making_Social_Science_Matter) It is a useful lens through which too look at libraries.

    • Thanks for mentioning Shera, Thomas. I have read some of Shera’s works and admire some of his thoughts on librarianship. But Shera has hardly reached the same level of reverence in the profession that Ranganathan currently enjoys. Shera is not routinely taught in library schools and ischools, and I have never seen Shera’s words featured on a library-themed tattoo or throw pillow. (I’m not lying; I have seen both!) I also agree that there is something to be learned by borrowing from cognate fields, but ultimately we need to create our own theories and philosophies in order to thrive. Thank you for the reading suggestion too. I will definitely take a look!

      • I realize that I did not really get your whole point when I first red your post. Upon re-reading I see your point about Ranganathan becoming the philosophical security blanket of librarianship. I do believe that moving the field forward theoretically is the resposibility of library academics, researchers and teachers both. I challenge them to take the lead in the development of a coherent library philosophy. Preferably developing in dialogue and cooperation with practitioners. Ranganathan is not so much an obstacle as an too easy place to rest your theoretical legs. Time for librarians to do some theoretical work outs! 🙂 Thanks for a great post, it really got me thinking. Especially after re-reading and hopefull understanding better 🙂

  2. I read Cossette when I was in grad school and I admit my knowledge of the text is a bit rusty (I have my copy around here somewhere!), but I remember thinking that he fell into the same trap as Ranganathan in believing that librarianship could be defined by a single philosophical statement (he talked about both librarianship as a science and librarianship as a philosophy and seemed to me that he strongly favored the latter). The longer I work as a librarian, the more I begin to think that a single overarching statement of what we do (a la “big librarianship”) is not possible and that even our search for one may do more harm than good (esp. because it oversimplifies the unique needs of each community). But I like advocating for a scientific approach to what we do: this would lead to a more varied, more diversified “collection of knowledge” (i.e. field) about libraries instead of a unified philosophy.

    • That is a criticism that I have of Cossette as well, John. He focuses too much on defining a “philosophy of librarianship”, or as you say a “unified theory” of the field, instead of laying out some philosophical foundations of librarianship. I think there is much to be learned from the philosophy of social science, epistemological theories, pedagogical theories, and the philosophy of communication and information rather than “reinvent the wheel” in creating a philosophy of librarianship. I feel strongly, however, that we need to take an empirical approach to what we do, based in solid foundations in social science, to create new theory and explanation about why we do what we do, rather than just simple explanations of what we do. Case studies are great, and a lot can be learned from them, but we need to spend a considerable amount of time on the “whys of librarianship” to truly move forward and thrive as librarians.

    • I appreciate your comment, Michael, but disagree. Words matter, and a semantic analysis of Ranganathan’s Five Laws is perfectly valid in a profession that values open discourse on what matters to the profession. My reason for writing the post is, your understandings aside, what I see most in librarianship is a reading of the Five Laws as laws and not as guiding principles. Ranganathan is taught universally in library schools and ischools, and his Five Laws, if not intended as “laws” have taken that position within the profession. Furthermore, Ranganathan was a smart guy; if he wanted the Five Laws to be taken as “guiding principles”, I suspect he would have called them as such. The point of my post is not to discredit Ranganathan — I have great respect for his contributions to the field — but to move the profession past the Five Laws and into thinking more about why we do what we do as librarians. It is this “why librarianship” that is important, in my opinion.

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