An Introduction to the Thought of S.R. Ranganathan for Information Architects
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:
- Books are for use.
- Every reader his or her book.
- Every book its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- 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.
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:
- 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.