Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

The Fourth Law: Save the Time of the Reader


Save the Time of the Reader.  That is S.R. Ranganathan’s Fourth Law of Library Science.  Unlike the first three laws, this one “makes its approach from the side of the readers.”  While he initially states that the Fourth Law is demonstrated “from the moment he [the reader] enters the library,” he later discusses the importance of saving the time of the reader to get to the library by appropriate placement of library buildings, branches, and mobile libraries.  A more modern approach would include online manifestations of library resources and services.

The author starts with a review of the “Closed System” of library stacks, which required readers to scour catalog books or cards, fill out slips with the required information precisely transcribed, submit those slips to the appropriate person, and wait…and wait…and wait…from an average of 30 minutes to upwards of hours.  Just to receive the books, or to be told that they weren’t available or that the information was not correct.

Of course, Ranganathan was very supportive of the Open Access system.  Indeed, I think he would also be very supportive the 21st century version of Open Access – having books and articles freely available, at least online.  In addition to supporting the Fourth Law, he advocated Open Access shelving “on the grounds of national economy”, given how much time is wasted by the researcher or assistant waiting.  He calculated 36,000 man-hours were wasted at his Madras University library, based on number of visits and average time waiting.

Another development that Ranganathan cheered as in support of the Fourth Law was the arrangement of non-fiction books on the shelf by subject.  Again, he supported his claims by providing calculations of time needed to locate books on a topic if the shelves were arranged by author.  He also advocated having the most heavily used subjects located closer to the front of the library for easier access (think the opposite of grocery stores, which put their most wanted items in the back forcing us to walk by things we wouldn’t otherwise think about). My concern with this idea is that it is not predictable and thus could be consider not user-friendly.

Interestingly, when discussing charging systems and staff efficiencies, Ranganathan heavily advocates using the then-modern card-based systems rather the more common log-based systems.  This was new at that time, using cards to hold a set of information about a book or a reader and then filing the cards for easy retrieval.  The examples he provided clearly demonstrated the beginnings of databases, with each card a record which included a number of fields (boxes and lines).  It is no wonder that Ranganathan was an early advocate of computer automation of library-related tasks.

Like the other 3 Laws, the Fourth Law can be applied to all aspects of librarianship and library service in a variety of ways, including:

  • Collection Development – Ranganathan focuses largely on improving the efficiency of procedures and tasks in order to get the books to the readers more quickly.  His suggestions were largely technical, with examples of cards for improving the tracking of book selection and acquisition.  I would add that proper book selection itself saves the time of the reader by having the right books available in the first place.  It also saves the time of the reader to sort through a more limited set of resources that have already been selected for their quality and usefulness.
  • Cataloging & Technical Services – As mentioned in previous posts, Ranganathan strongly advocated for proper subject analysis in the catalog record.  This was particularly important for books that had interdisciplinary content or critiqued works from other authors.  He provided some examples that demonstrated how time-consuming it would be for a reader to find the right books by scanning them individually, rather than find the cross-reference cards for the desired topic or author.
  • Reference – The author notes that reference staff should acquire greater familiarity with the bibliography tools and the library’s collection more rapidly than most users, given their regular use of this material.  However, there is a reluctance to hire a sufficient number of staff to meet the needs of the community.  This most apparent in universities, where “academic libraries seem to be lacking in their power to perceive the value of time and are hence halting in appreciating the need for such staff.”  He mentions the two basic types of reference services provided in libraries – Ready Reference, which requires quick thinking and good memory, and Long-Range Reference, which requires specialization in a subject area, as well as ability to approach and interact with a range of reader experiences and knowledge.  It would be interesting re-examine this issue today – in this day and age of greater self-service and online Ready Reference sources, are library reference services properly staffed?
  • Programming & Marketing – While not explicitly mentioned by Ranganathan, the programming and promotional efforts of libraries also demonstrate the value of the Fourth Law. He does advocate for proper placement of libraries, strongly supporting centralized locations for urban areas, and strategic placement of branches for larger areas.  He also mentions the growing value of mobile libraries, using motorized and animal-driven vehicles, when necessary.
  • User Training & Education – While not specifically mentioned by Ranganathan, I believe that user training and education can have the greatest effect on saving the reader’s time.  By teaching the users to fish, these librarians save them their time of having to wait in line for assistance and explain their need (often multiple times before their need is correctly expressed and communicated).  This is especially true for students and researchers who would likely need to find similar resources many times.
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This entry was posted on April 6, 2012 by in Catalogs, Collections, History, LIS Profession and tagged .
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