If you have worked in information for any length of time you are likely to have encountered Ranganathan’s Laws (Ranganathan, 1931). They have been described as, “for librarians… timeless objectives that put our profession’s goals in perspective” (Rimland, 2007)
There has been an array of alternatives presented since their first appearance such as Gorman’s ‘Five New Laws of Librarianship’ (Gorman, 1995). However Ranganthan’s laws - although almost 90 years old - still resonate today.
But how relevant are they to modern libraries – in particular to health libraries?
Let us take each ‘Law’ in turn and see if it still holds up to examination
First Law: Books are for use
Some may be tempted to argue that this has already dated. That perhaps a library is ‘a more abstract concept – a community of learning,' (Duffy, 2012) There is certainly the challenge that libraries are no longer a place specifically and only for having physical repositories of information.
That said, our modern healthcare library will still have physical books. Alongside that however we will also provide access to a range of online resources. Ranganathan’s first law posited that books are for use so that information is not hidden away and is accessible to the user.
Nothing could be more relevant to the healthcare library. Ranganathan emphasised that the preservation of information and knowledge can be as important as access to it. This still underpins all that we do. Preservation and access to information remains vital, be it in a printed book or digitally.
If Ranganathan had been writing now he may well have re-worded this as “books and data are for use,” but it is as important that we maintain that information and access for our users as it has ever been.
Second Law: Every reader his/her book
The second law of library science, "every reader his/her book" means that librarians are serving all sorts of people and that it is incumbent on us to fulfil their information needs.
As any healthcare librarian will tell you there are plenty of issues with access and availability to information for our end users. It has been suggested that, ‘The implication of the second law in… the library is to meet user needs satisfactorily by collecting and interpreting information, understanding the needs of users, and matching the needs with its resources’ (Bhatt, 2011). This was said about library marketing but remains salient for our own purposes.
As with Ranganathan’s first law, the explosion of online information – often hidden behind a pay-wall - only expands and reinforces the need for librarians to do what they always have.
Every reader his/her book or his/her choice of information access is something that should underpin what we do. It is our job to support access to knowledge whatever format it may be presented in.
Third law: Every book his/her reader
The third law, “every book his/her reader,” can be interpreted to mean that every knowledge resource is useful to someone, no matter how specialized and no matter how small the audience may be.
Library systems can now manage extraordinarily complex collections covering a broad range of physical and digital resources. It should be noted that physical presence is no longer a barrier to building a great collection.
Alongside this is the idea of guiding people to the information they may not even have known they needed. How often have we all heard – “I didn’t even know about this but it’s perfect for what I need”?
It is incumbent on us to make sure that we find the right information to pair up with our users and help them access it. Every knowledge resource his/her reader remains entirely apposite.
Fourth Law: Save the time of the reader
Few would argue with the sentiment that ‘digitization has democratized access to knowledge,’ (Rimland, 2007). The challenge is to maintain access for the user and save them the laborious experience of searching for what they need.
The fourth law of library science, "save the time of the reader," indicates library users should be able to access the material they need quickly and efficiently.
As we focus more on the impact that healthcare libraries are having this is one we can certainly make great claim to. We are constantly saving our users time. Either by locating what they need or by ensuring smooth uninterrupted access.
Our objective is to supply what is required by any library user. In the perfect world this would mean we would provide what they need immediately. Of course we cannot always do this but if we are able to arrange access or a way to receive the product needed we are fulfilling our end user wishes and reducing their lost time.
The fourth law can be applied to collection development, cataloguing, reference, marketing, user training and education etc. Because if we are getting our readers what they want, quickly and efficiently we are improving the users’ experience. This applies to all libraries and is certainly central to the delivery of healthcare library services.
Fifth Law: The library is a growing organism
Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science, "the library is a growing organism," implies a need for continual change. Collections would need to be updated constantly, methods of access are constantly changing and updating and online footprints are altering constantly over time.
This has been put succinctly as ‘the library as an institution that is active in a constantly changing environment, and according that, the institute should change and adapt itself with spirit of time so it can serve best those who need it,' (Barner, 2011)
I would challenge anyone to find a healthcare library that is not constantly evolving to meet the needs of its users. Further I would contest that if they did not they would not be actively serving their purpose and would be ’extinct’ as a service in no time at all.
From our constantly updating catalogue to our demand-responsive approach, the health care library community is the very epitome of the library as a growing organism.
Ranganthan’s laws may be almost 90 years old but they can still resonate today. All kinds of libraries can still point to them and argue how they apply to them and they can certainly still apply to health libraries if we modify them to include digital resources.
There is something comforting to take from the idea that - nearly a century later -however great the transformation to a digital world, there are still core values that can be applied in this way.
Gorman, M. Five New Laws of Librarianship American Libraries 26(8), September 1995
Ranganathan, S. R. The Five Laws of Library Science, Madras; London : The Madras Library Association; E. Goldston, 1931
Rimland, E. Ranganathan's Relevant Rules Reference & User Services Quarterly 46(4), Summer 2007, 24-26
Specialist Librarian for E-Resources