Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

The Fifth Law

I find Ranganathan’s Fifth Law of Library Science the most intriguing: The Library is a Growing Organism.  While the First Law can be considered a “Trivial Truism”, which he compares to Newton’s First Law of Motion, the Fifth Law is an abstraction of natural laws.  Essentially, “an organism which ceases to grow will petrify and perish.”  Without this understanding, librarians and library administrators deny their charges the necessary nutrition (funding) and nurturing (planning), and these libraries will stagnate (loose their impact) and die (closed due to lack of interest or support).

He describes both growth in size (of collections, of readers, of staff), as well as in form (evolution), although he devotes most of this chapter on the former.  Ranganathan had already spent much of the first half of the book detailing the evolution of the laws of library science from “Books are for Preservation” to “Books are for use”, and from “Books are for the Chosen Few” to “Every Reader His Book”.  And while he “cannot anticipate fully…what further stages of evolution are in store for this Growing Organism — the library…”, his Fifth Law ensures the understanding that libraries will continue to grow and evolve, or they will perish.

Regarding the growth in size, Ranganathan laments the “modesty” that library administrators underestimate the rate of growth of their charges. Even worse, he charges, is acting on this assumption of little change, and setting in motion “a faulty organisation obstructing the free development of a library…to its full stature.”

He then associates library collection sizes with publication rates in the world.  He lists the book production for 1927.  I added 2011 numbers for comparison:

Country 1927 2011
Russia 36,680 123,336 336%
Germany 31,026 93,124 300%
Japan 19,967 78,555 393%
India 17,120 82,537 482%
Great Britain 13,810 206,000 1492%
France 11,922 67,278 564%
United States 10,153 288,355 2840%

Ranganathan then lists the annual rates of accession in some of the largest libraries, listed here with the latest rates I could find:

Library 1927 2011 Rate Source
Library of Congress 202,111 454,212 225% 2010 Annual Report
Cambridge University Library 90,916 139,948 154% 2010 Annual Report
Birmingham Public Library 28,566 166,847 584% Local Library Standards Audit 2010-2011
Imperial Library, Calcutta 7,832 62,773 801% Calculated by comparing data from the Encyclopedia of Library Science1 and the National Library’s Web site

1. Gaur, R. C., Jeyaraj, V., & Kumar, K. (2009). India: Libraries, archives and museums. Encyclopedia of library and information sciences, third edition (pp. 2291-2329) Taylor & Francis. doi:doi:10.1081/E-ELIS3-120044942

I wanted to include others listed, but getting the acquisitions data on libraries is not easy.

It is interesting, though, that it appears that Ranganathan’s attempt to associate publication rates with library collection size has broken down over time. It is interesting that the LoC acquisitions was only two & a quarter times the number of over 80 years before, while the number of items published is 28 times. This indicates that libraries have ceased being the storehouses (even the LoC) of all information. That merely changes the relationship of the publication rates with the collection growth rates.

But Ranganathan moves on to describe how libraries should be able to accommodate the natural growth (which R. assumed would continue unabated). After addressing how to make the physical building and furniture flexible for this growth in size, he then addresses the need for the classification system to accommodate growth. Not unsurprisingly, he laments the Library of Congress Classification System for using a “primitive method of leaving gaps int he ordinary serial use of numbers,” while promoting Dewey’s system as “a demonstration of the immense potentiality of the decimal fraction.” But most of all, he admonishes libraries to use standard classifications rather than tweaking systems or making their own.. He does mention the Colon Classification system he was then developing (at the time of the second edition), in that its mixed alphanumeric format and use of decimal formats are able to apply the three aspects of analytico-synthetic scheme: phase, facet and zone.

Next, Ranganathan turns his attention to the growth in number of readers that will inevitably occur as both the population increases and the Second Law brings about changes to that population (greater availability of reading material, increased literacy, “open access” shelves). I worry a bit, though, that with the decreasing emphasis on reading print books, libraries have been moving their books into long-term storage. While there have been improvements that decrease the amount of time it takes to retrieve a book, this policy effectively closes the stacks again, reversing the efforts made over a century ago. As electronic books can eventually replace print books, the print-to-electronic ratio may take a while to reach 1:1. Will the shift of collections reduce the availability of materials to such an extent that it has a detrimental effect on access to information?

Finally, he addresses not only the growth in size of the library, but also in form. Here, however, his foresight is limited and he focuses the progress that has already occurred. He discusses the gradual shift from keeping books chained like prisoners to “stock-taking” to limited “stock-use” to the “highly differentiated and complicated character of the organisation of the library to-day”. He returns to the “growing organism” metaphor by celebrating the variety of libraries as “species” with their own “problems and peculiarities” but also with “common features”.  

He ends this chapter on his final law detailing “the vital principle of the library” –

“it [the library] is an instrument of universal education, and assembles together and freely distributes all the tools of education and disseminates knowledge with their aid.”

There would be no better way for S.R. Ranganathan to end his treatise on library science and librarianship.


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This entry was posted on May 2, 2012 by in History, LIS Data, LIS Profession, Publishing and tagged .

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