Ranganathan & the 21st Century Library

I did a “Tech Talk” for a class I’m currently taking, and I thought I’d put it up here in written form on my blog (that I’ve ignored lately).

S.R. Ranganathan

You’ve probably never heard of him, but this guy is one of the foremost leaders of my field.  You see, I’m a teacher librarian, and S.R. Ranganathan is regarded as the father of library science of India.  Now I’m not Indian, yet his 5 laws of library science are as relevant today as when he articulated them in 1931.  In fact these laws really encapsulate my philosophy of what my library should be.

I’m Christine Sturgeon, and let’s re-imagine libraries for the 21st century.


Chicago Architectural Photographing Co. photo.

Listen, I get it.  Libraries?  Who needs libraries when you can get information at the literal push of a button?  And librarians?  Oh right, those women who shush if you’re being too loud and who wear cardigan sweaters and reading glasses and their hair in a bun.

OK, so I resemble that remark.  But let me say two things.  Men can be librarians, and I don’t like to shush.  I mean, sometimes it’s necessary, but I really try to avoid it.  And the thing is, libraries are a lot more than repositories of books these days. If you haven’t been to a library lately, you’re missing out.

shushing librarian

And librarians?  We’re much more than our stereotype.


So back to Ranganathan.

He was a mathematician-turned-librarian who actually hated his job at first.  He was used to being a college professor and the traditional library was just so quiet and lacking in energy.  So he went off for training overseas and he came back with a newfound vision of what his library should be.  He wanted it to be the intellectual and cultural center of his campus.  He was definitely a man ahead of his time.

But he was a man of his time, too.  He traveled by steamship and he corresponded with Melvil Dewey, the other father of library science.  And you’ll notice he’s a bit old fashioned in his language, but we can fix that.

So here’s the first one.  Books are for use.

Books are for use

Image from redkid.net

Like I said, libraries are a lot more than books, so let’s change that to

Library resources are for use

Image from redkid.net

I mean, I love books, don’t get me wrong.  I want a strong print collection, and there’s nothing better than preschool storytime.  But we’re more.  I know of libraries here in Iowa that check out vegetable seeds or laptop computers or bicycles or puppets or cake pans.  In my own library, we have a 1,000 books before kindergarten program and we check out backpacks to little people with 10 preschool level books to be read to them at home.

So here’s the second law.

Every reader his book

Image from redkid.net

Again, it’s not only books, and we’re not all men.  So that becomes:

Every patron their library resource

Image from redkid.net

Sounds simple enough.  If you come into the library, you should be able to find what you’re looking for.  My high school’s science teachers have their students read a literary nonfiction book on a science topic over the trimester, so we have over 100 books, everything from Silent Spring to The Physics of Star Trek. 

And the PE teacher, Mr. Harman, he wanted to better communicate with a student who uses ASL, so I asked a friend and he suggested I get these cards:

ASL flash cards

Image from Amazon

And I did, and these are available for checkout in my library.  So yes, sometimes resources are books, except when they’re not.

Then there’s my daughter, with me, and she had a high school reading class.  She had to do a project on a book she read, and she read World War Z.  She decided to do a zombie puppet show, and she found a Youtube video that showed her how.  A trip to the fabric store and $80 later, she’s ready to go.  But there was a problem.  Now this is important.  I want you to know I’m a woman with a sewing machine, but I’m also a woman who didn’t know where her power cord was.  So what to do?  Abby went to the home ec teacher and used one of hers. Great.  The thing is, what if Abby didn’t have a study hall?  What if they didn’t get along?  What if the home ec teacher was really territorial about her tools?

Instead, what if we have a space in the school where kids can use resources like a sewing machine, a video camera, a 3D printer, a vinyl cutter, to do school projects.  To do things for 4H or Girls Scouts or just because they want to.  We have a place like that and it’s called a


Image by Josh Anderson, used with permission

I have a makerspace in both the elementary and secondary libraries, and libraries across the country are increasingly putting them into their spaces.  I think it’s changing the very definition of libraries and doing so in a positive way.

So here’s the third law:

Every book its reader

Image from redkid.net

Just a little tweaking, and we get

Every library resource its patron

Image from redkid.net

Which this just means, we try not to waste money.  The things we buy we buy because someone asked for it, or we believe with the right marketing, that they’ll use it.  So that really puts the responsibility on us.

Now the 4th law:

Save the time of the reader

Image from redkid.net

Again, we’re not just about books, so that becomes

Save the time of the library patron

Image from redkid.net

One big way of doing this is thinking about how we organize our books.  I use the bookstore model, so fiction books are organized by genre, like mystery or romance or whatever.  So when I have a class of 25 5th graders come in who each need a mystery book, I don’t have to rack my brain to remember who wrote Encyclopedia Brown (Donald Sobol, as if), and just point them to the mystery section.  And nonfiction is done using not Dewey Decimal – sorry, Melvil – but the BISAC method, like bookstores use.  So there’s cookbooks and philosophy and travel, and these are all put alphabetically by topic.  Frankly I think it’s a lot easier to find a book in my library than a bookstore!

And of course the makerspace saves time for patrons.  Not having to rush around to find who has a sewing machine you can borrow has its advantages.

The fifth law then is

The library is a growing resource

Image from redkid.net

And this one needs no changing.

This is why I think Dr. Ranganathan was brilliant.  Even 85 years ago, he understood that the library would change.  I frankly believe he would approve of seed libraries and 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten programs and makerspaces.  For libraries to be relevant in this century, we have to continue to grow.  And to all of you I say, come to the library and check us out.

The library - a great place to get checked out

Image by Mental Floss

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