The Five Laws of Library Science

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By Scott Piepenburg, MLIS

Every profession has some basic philosophies or guidelines that they follow. For doctors, the Hippocratic Oath is perhaps the most well-known. Police officers often adopt the concept of “to protect and serve,” while firefighters often use the phrase “Everyone comes back alive.” Librarians, too, have such a concept of service. This service guide should not be confused with a code of ethics or a code of conduct. It is not a code, but rather a concept, or philosophy, that the profession has used as a guide for what we do.

The most frequently used foundations of philosophy for librarians are often called the five laws of library science or Ranganathan’s Code. They were developed in 1931 by Indian librarian S. R. Ranganathan. While they have been modified and attempts have been made to update them, we will consider them in their original, basic form, as that form has been the most enduring.

For reference, the laws are:

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

They are very simple, yet together constitute a basic, and evolutionary, path. Let’s briefly walk through the laws and their progression.

1. Books are for use.

shutterstock_127278632This is the foundation of what we as librarians do. We believe that books are to be used. For many centuries, books were inaccessible to users. Because of their value, they were frequently chained down, and only select individuals were allowed access to them. Then, when they became more plentiful, they were still kept locked away because it was felt that the average person should not have free access to them. If you wanted a book, you would write down its location derived from a catalog and “call” for the book at the circulation desk (yes, this is where the phrase call number comes from).

In America, Benjamin Franklin and the founding fathers adopted a more egalitarian philosophy. Books would be readily accessible to users via an “open” collection. This is where the terms closed stacks and open stacks come from. It was believed that in a democracy, the population at large should have access to books, a concept Thomas Jefferson strongly believed in.

2. Every person his or her book.

shutterstock_294833369This second law expands on the first by taking the assumption that books are for use to the next level. It states that each person has a desire, or need, for a book. It is important to note that not every person will want the same book at the same time; on the contrary, it presumes that people will want different books at different times. Even people who are very similar may want different types of books at any given time. Here we accept that all people want, and have a right to, the book they want when they want it. This concept leads us to our next point.

3. Every book its reader.

Having assumed in the first two laws that books are an inherent good and that every person should have access to them, this law looks at the other side: it presumes that every book has a reader. Some books, like those in the “Harry Potter” series, achieve widespread sales and readership. Others, particularly technical or research books, have a much more limited audience. That being said, this law assumes that if a book exits, then somewhere, sometime, there is a reader for that book. This law states that there is a reader for every particular book. It may not be today, and it may not be widespread, but there is a reason for the existence of that book.

4. Save the time of the reader.

shutterstock_386315788This is the first law that points to us as librarians. The first three looked at the source of our existence, both items (or “products”) and customers. Now we are looking at what our purpose is. There are many books, articles, and classes devoted to what we do for our users as librarians, both in public and technical services. But this rule states it very simply: our users’ time is valuable, and it is our obligation to save it. They could spend hours poring over catalogs, databases, finding aids, thesauri, etc., or we could intercede and help them—or disambiguate their search, if you will. We have specialized skills and training to help readers find what they are looking for as efficiently as possible. Our goal is to help every reader find their book, and to help the book find someone who desires the information it contains. These two concepts could be summed up as “reference/cataloging” and “reader’s advisor.”

5. The library is a growing organism.

This last rule reminds us that we are not a static venture. Our users grow and change, books change, and we need to change with them. Notice that the law says “the library” is a growing organism. It presumes that the library is a living, breathing entity. It means that it grows and changes over time. The books we purchase and house in our collections will change with the times and our audience. Libraries in a given location may notice a change in their demographics and devote changes in collection development to address that change. Our collections become dated, many items irrelevant, and like an shutterstock_150822401overgrown garden, we weed our collections and remove those items that don’t have as many readers or readers in that specific location to make space for new books and new readers.

We are not going to go into all the issues of collection and staff development here, but suffice to say that our collections—along with the librarians who tend to them—change, morph, and adapt to evolving times and situations. As our users and resources grow and change, we also must change and grow so that we can be better stewards of those resources.

This is not a comprehensive look at the laws of library science. Indeed, many books and scholarly articles have been written about them. That said, in five short statements, we find the embodiment of what we do, why we do it, and how we can do it effectively. Each day we need to keep those concepts at the heart of our efforts and focus. It is why we are librarians.

Scott Piepenburg Image

Scott Piepenburg is currently the Cataloging Services Manager at Brodart and is the author of the popular Easy MARC series, as well as articles on the future of library automation, the history of disc-based recording technology, and the role of cataloging AV materials for school and public libraries. Click here for more.

 

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