The Five Laws of Library Science

Library Science has a fundamental philosophy, first articulated by Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan. He was a mathematician and a librarian, so naturally he’d be led to identifying Laws. The Laws are simple:

  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.

I admire these few, short rules for their concreteness, their simplicity, and their import. They hint at a deeper underlying philosophy (here I use philosophy in its “how to live your life” sense, not its “abstract argument” sense).

Rule 1 seems obvious, but on closer inspection it is not; instead, it helps combat natural protective (to keep the books clean and untorn and unmutilated — that is, unused) or collector (books are not (just) wall decor) impulses.

Rule 2 recognizes fundmental human diversity. If that isn’t a big concept in a small sentence, I don’t know what is.

Rule 3 actually seems a bit questionable to me, but I guess implies that every book may appeal to someone, even if it doesn’t appeal to you (or offends you — censorship beware!).

Rule 4 urges efficiency in the organization of books, the process of finding them (search), and the process of checking them out. Yes!

Rule 5 is the biggie — an open acceptance of change. How rare to see an institution acknowledge and embrace the fact that change is inevitable? Patrons change, demographics change, materials change, and the process by which those materials are disseminated definitely changes (the very wording of these Laws is now outdated, since we must replace “book” with “media” to reflect today).

Now I’m wondering what primary Laws one could identify in Machine Learning, or even Computer Science. Do we have fundamental principles? Can they be similarly tied to ethics? What would they be?

(Yes, yes, the Three Laws of Robotics. Next?)


  1. Jim said,

    June 6, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Been thinking about similar guidelines. Two that have recently come up at work:

    1. You get what you measure.
    2. You’re not measuring the right thing.

    I’ll have to ponder the software engineering ones.

  2. What I Learned Today » Blog Archive » The shelves are yours said,

    October 12, 2012 at 11:07 am

    […] of Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science is that every book has its reader, and therefore the library should make it easy for books to be […]

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