Ranganathan for IAs

Written by: Mike Steckel

An Introduction to the Thought of S.R. Ranganathan for Information Architects

“Ranganathan aimed big—he was looking for the fundamental laws that underlie experience and it quickly became an obsession.”

S.R. Ranganathan was the greatest librarian of the 20th Century. No one else even comes close. His ideas influenced every aspect of library science (a term he is credited with coining), and because he was such a complete and systematic thinker, he was gifted in the development of all areas of the field, including theory, practice, and management. Yet, as impressive as his accomplishments were, Ranganathan didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a librarian at all.

He was born in Madras, India, in 1892, trained as a mathematician, and eventually became a lecturer of mathematics at the University of Madras. In 1924 the university offered him the position of librarian. One of the conditions of the appointment was that he attend training in London to learn contemporary methods of librarianship. It was during this trip that he met W.C. Berwick Sayers, who taught him about classification theory, and it was on this trip that he began observing libraries throughout the city.

In 1925 he returned to India a different person. His desire to build libraries and improve librarianship became a passion. The basic methods Ranganathan used to develop his ideas emerged from his background in mathematics and his beliefs in Hindu mysticism. He would examine complex phenomena, break his observations into small pieces, and then attempt to connect the pieces together in a systematic way. This method has often been called the Analytico-Synthetic method. Ranganathan used this methodology for classification, management, reference, administration, and many other subjects. Francis Miksa stated it well: “Ranganathan treated library classification as a single unified structure of ideas which flowed from a cohesive set of basic principles” (Miksa, 1998) Ranganathan aimed big—he was looking for the fundamental laws that underlie experience and it quickly became an obsession. Girja Kumar reports, “There had not been a day of the life of Ranganathan since 1924 when he did not breathe, think, talk, and even dream of librarianship and library science” (Kumar, 1992) Kumar further reports, “[Ranganathan] spent two decades as librarian of Madras University. Never did he take any vacations during this period. He spent 13 hours every day for seven days a week on the premises of the library.” (Kumar, 1992) He wrote his 62 books in the evenings, during his off hours.

In addition to the almost uncountable number of books and articles Ranganathan authored, he also created several professional and educational organizations, primarily in India, and he participated in library movements around the world.

For most librarians today, he is primarily remembered for two contributions: the Five Laws of Library Science and the Colon Classification.

The Five Laws of Library Science
The Five Laws are the kernel of all of Ranganathan’s practice. They are:

  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.

While the laws seem simple on first reading, think about some of the conversations on SIGIA and how neatly these laws summarize much of what the IA community believes. Ranganathan saw these laws as the lens through which practitioners can inform their decision making and set their business priorities, while staying focused on the user. Although they are simply stated, the laws are nevertheless deep and flexible. They can also be updated to include the field of IA in a variety of ways.

1. Books are for use.
Websites are designed to be used, they are not temples or statues we admire from a distance. We want people to interact with our websites, click around, do things, and have fun.

2. Every book its reader.

3. Every reader its book.
Maybe we can modify these two to say “each piece of content its user” and “each user his/her content.” The point here is that we should add content with specific user needs in mind, and we should make sure that readers can find the content they need. Laws 2 and 3 remind me of the methodology taught by Adaptive Path. Make certain our content is something our users have identified as a need, and at the same time make sure we don’t clutter up our site with content no one seems to care about.

4. Save the time of the user.
This law, when we are talking of websites, has both a front-end component (make sure people quickly find what they are looking for) and a back-end component (make sure our data is structured in a way that retrieval can be done quickly). It is also imperative that we understand what goals our users are trying to achieve on our site.

5. The library is a living organism.
We need to plan and build with the expectation that our sites and our users will grow and change over time. Similarly we need to always keep our own skill levels moving forward.

Colon Classification
Besides these laws, Ranganathan is also famous for the Colon Classification system, a widely influential but rarely used classification system. This is his greatest achievement and where he developed most of his most famous ideas, including facets and facet analysis. The system is again based on Ranganathan looking for “universal principles” inherent in all knowledge. His belief was that if he could identify these, organizing around them would be more intuitive for the user.

For Ranganathan, the problem with the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification systems is that they used indexing terms that had to be thought out before the object being described could fit into the system. With the explosion of new information early in the 20th Century, the enumerative, or pre-planned, systems could not keep up. Ranganathan’s solution was the development of facets. This idea came to him while watching someone use an erector set (Garfield, 1984).

Rather than creating a slot to insert the object into, one starts with the object and then collects and arranges all the relevant pieces on the fly. This allows for greater flexibility and a high degree of specificity.

The fundamental facets that Ranganathan developed were: Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time. (Amaze your librarian friends by referring to these by the acronym PMEST!)

  • Personality—what the object is primarily “about.” This is considered the “main facet.”
  • Matter—the material of the object
  • Energy—the processes or activities that take place in relation to the object
  • Space—where the object happens or exists
  • Time—when the object occurs

Ranganathan believed that any object (for him this meant any concept that a book could be written about) could be represented by pulling relevant pieces from these five facets and fitting them together. All of the facets do not need to be represented, and each can be pulled any number of times. The notation for each facet was separated by using a colon, hence the name of the system. Arlene Taylor provides a good example that uses all five facets. Imagine a book about “the design of wooden furniture in 18th century America.” (Taylor, 1999)

The facets would be as follows:

  • Personality—furniture
  • Matter—wood
  • Energy—design
  • Space—America
  • Time—18th century

The book is described by combining the relevant pieces from each facet. “Wood” is a piece of that description which covers an area that none of the other pieces cover. The power comes through combining the pieces together to form the whole. In this case, it is a one-to-one ratio, which would be rare in real life. Also, keep in mind that the specifics of how the Colon Classification works are complex (be skeptical of anyone who claims to understand them), and are generally beyond the realm of the practicing IA.

(Stay Tuned: Boxes and Arrows has plans to write in more detail about facets in the future.)

There is, however, much that the practicing IA can take from Ranganathan. Besides exploring concepts such as the Five Laws or practices such as facet analysis, Ranganathan was also a diligent evangelist of getting information to people who needed it, and he thought deeply about the problems he faced from all sides. There is still a lot that needs to be done to build up the field of information architecture; Ranganathan may help us the most by serving as inspiration.

  1. Miksa, Francis L., The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Albany: Forest Press, 1998; 67
  2. Kumar, Girja, S.R. Ranganathan: An Intellectual Biography., New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1992; 45
  3. Kumar, 93
  4. Garfield, Eugene, A Tribute to S.R. Ranganathan: Part 1. Life and Works, http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v7p037y1984.pdf; 40
  5. Taylor, Arlene G., The Organization of Information., Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1999; 180

Mike Steckel is an Information Architect/Technical Librarian for International SEMATECH in Austin, TX.

Mike Steckel

Mike Steckel

is a Senior Information Architect at Trademark Media in Austin Texas.
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15 thoughts on “Ranganathan for IAs”

  1. Ref: “S.R. Ranganathan was the greatest librarian of the 20th Century. No one else even comes close.”

    Hmmm. A bit too sweeping perhaps. That knocks out Melvil Dewey, Archibald Macleish, Jorge Louis Borges and other philosopher-librarians. Ranganathan was a book fiend alright, but he was also bit of a crack. I’d say his five laws are about as useful for library science as the three laws of robotics are useful for automotive engineering.

    But I enjoyed the facet stuff. Some of the design patterns stuff, popular in object oriented programming, might be especially useful.

  2. My guru Dr.Ranganathan not only designed the Colon Classification he also contributed (wrote books on) almost all aspects of librarianship of that time. Edition 15 of Dewey Decimal in two volumes was about 3500 pages, but the colon classification Edition 5 (only the schedules part) was only 128 pages and could construct class numbers to all those provided in the DDC 15 as well as much more. He wrote books on “Book Selection”, “Library Administration” (which could all be transformed in to flow charts), :Cataloging “Classified Catalogue Code with Additional Rules for Dictionary Catalogue”, “Reference Service”, “Documentation” – the forerunner to the current so called knowledge management, Planning of Libraries, of course his monumental “Prolegomena to Library Classification” (three editions), and much more. He also developed a system of indexing called “Chain Indexing”. A small write-up “Ranganathan had SEVEN Facets and not FIVE : Facet Analysis and Semantic Web” is available at I would appreciate you views. You can ask me anything about Ranganathan I have recently immigrated (legally) to USA. F.J. Devadason

  3. Its interesting to find ideas of Ranganathan among IAs. The story is really nice.

    @Anil Menon
    Brother, he was not a crack…mind your langauge. He was a great philosopher and his ideas are still rocking in the digital age.

  4. Ranganathan was a Mathematician. Mathematicians and Scientists think differently, they look at laws that govern the universe (in this case, library and librarianship are the universes) and create formulas for the rest of mankind. Ranganathan created such formulas. It is interesting how a Mathematicians got into libraray field, and applied mathematical thinking and came up with these laws (facets). I wish all our elected leaders are Mathematicians and Scientists, our world would be far better.

  5. The Svenonius book is thorough, but it’s not an easy read. Lots of dense, academic prose. For example, consider her definition of facets:

    “Facets are grouping of terms obtained by the first division of a subject division into homogenous or semantically cohesive categories…When a facet is semantically cohesive, terms in it are related by the paradigmatic relationships of synonymy and hierarchy, and the totality of facets used in the subject language is mutually exclusive.”

    The book is excellent, but as the title suggests, intellectually heavy. If you’re puzzled by the above then I can’t really recommend it.


  6. Y’know, Karl, that definition of facets isn’t that bad. Maybe you’re hiding something worse behind that elipses, but I read it and thought “wow, that pretty much sums it up and covers all the bases.”

    Sometimes a paragraph full of $3 words that you have to read twice is more precise and satisfying than five paragraphs attempting to explain it using a more common vocabulary.

    Just my, uh, 2¢.

  7. A very good introduction to creating faceted classifications is Louise Spiteri’s “A simplified model for facet analysis: Ranganathan 101”. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 23 (April-July 1998): 1-30. Unfortunately I can’t find it online, you’ll have to make a trip to the library.

  8. Great article, and nice to see some attention for Ranganathan and the 5 Laws. In my own Web-related work, I’ve often referred to them in terms of the users and usability to techies, geeks, business “types,” and so on.. and most of them “get it” in that short, powerful list.. thanks for the article, Mike.. I’m linking to it from my blog…

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