A Closer Look at the Work of S.R. Ranganathan

A Closer Look at the Work of S.R. Ranganathan

Ask anyone pursuing a degree in librarianship to name the most influential person in library science, and most will quickly respond with Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System. A strong case can be made, however, for Shiyali Ranganathan, whose pioneering work served as the foundation for the modern role of libraries as public centers for intellectual life.

Early Life and Education

Ranganathan pursued an M.A. in Mathematics at Madras Christian College, finishing his degree along with the school’s first graduating class in 1913. From there, he accepted a post teaching mathematics at Presidency College. By all accounts, Ranganathan was an excellent teacher, respected by students and faculty alike. It was a vocation he thoroughly enjoyed, and he spent much of his leisure time cultivating public awareness of the importance of math and the sciences through a series of well-attended lectures.

When he was tapped in 1924 by Madras University to become its first librarian, Ranganathan balked, and pleaded with the administration not to take him out of the lively classroom environment, saying, “I cannot bear the solitary imprisonment day after day.” The university struck a bargain with Ranganathan, asking him to study librarianship in England for a year, agreeing to hold his professorship position for him if he returned unwilling to lead the library.

A Year of Revelation

While in England, Ranganathan studied with the chief librarian of the Croyden Public Library. He visited scores of libraries, observing for the first time how the library could become a center for community learning. He discovered a social purpose for the library, seeing in it an invaluable resource to promote education to all members of society, from the poorest children to the most learned scholars. He returned from England in 1925, consumed with zeal for his mission to transform the role of public libraries in his native India.

Ranganathan’s Reforms and Transformations

Ranganathan’s background in mathematics and teaching made him uniquely qualified to affect transformation within the Indian library system. His mission was to make the libraries more accessible, to attract more readers, and to promote self-education for every member of the community—a goal neatly expressed in his Five Laws of Library Science:

  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.

With his mission clearly in mind, he began a series of reforms, including the introduction of an open-shelf system for books and utilizing mass media to draw people into the libraries. It was during these years that he developed the Colon Classification system and the Classified Catalog Code.

Father of Library Science

Ranganathan moved to Delhi University in 1947, not to manage the library, but to develop India’s first academic program in Library Science, offering both bachelor and master’s level degrees. While at Delhi, he also worked with India’s government to design a comprehensive 30-year plan to develop and reform the national library program.

Ranganathan’s passion for the public library system never floundered up until his death in 1972 at age 80, when he was still acting as Chairman of the International Federation for Documentation. Appropriately enough, he is known as the Father of Library Science in India, and his legacy can be seen in libraries and academic institutions all over the nation.