The invitation from the Academy of Library Science and Documentation to speak at the Librarian’s Day programme at the City Central Library, Ashok Nagar on Sunday, 14 August has proved to be a great opportunity to reflect on the contributions of the S R Ranganathan, the Father of Library Science in India. As is well known, Ranganathan was the originator of the Colon Classification system, and I first learned of this as a student in Madras University where I spent many hours in the University Library next to Presidency College. This was where Ranganathan started his career in 1924… Another library that began using the colon classification system- but sadly, did not stay with it- was the JNU library, so while I have heard generations of librarians extol the virtues of the colon classification, this is now rarely used. Nevertheless, the reputation of Ranganathan goes well beyond this contribution.
In the area of education, and specifically, in the area of higher education, the importance of a library cannot be underplayed. And it is here that Ranganathan made his most lasting contributions, by clearly enunciating how information is to be stored, curated and classified, and shared. His five laws of Library Science are as relevant today as they were when he enunciated them in 1931… in some ways, as the amount of information has grown tremendously in volume, these laws should be even more relevant to us.
I have been a user of the college and University library system since about 1970, and in the past forty odd years, we have all seen how libraries have changed. In my own experience, I recall how the closed stacks at Loyola College contrasted sharply with the open shelves at the British Council and USIS libraries that I was exposed to as an undergraduate. The more modern libraries with books and current journals at the IIT Kanpur, the vast collections of libraries in the US and Europe that I have been able to explore, and the few great libraries that we have here in India even now- I am not just thinking of niche libraries such as the Khuda Baksh in Patna and the Rampur Raza library in Rampur, but the Connemara, the Asiatic Society and others… – these are some sort of heaven, as Borges famously said.
The digital revolution has changed some of this in a fundamental way, and much of it is for the better. As the volume of information has increased, digitization has meant that the effective size of holdings have increased, their preservation has improved, and their accessibility- and searchability- have vastly increased. So much so, that much of what a library offers is now available on a computer screen. Much, but not all, of course- there is something to holding a book and flipping a page that swiping the screen of an iPad cannot reproduce. But that is a sensation that coming generations will not miss, or at least will not miss in the same way as we might.
How we search for information and how we share it has, in general, been fundamentally altered in the past decade though the invention of powerful tools on the internet. Wikipedia and Google are two that come to mind, but there are also many other huge efforts in information management.
It is tempting to think of what Dr Ranganathan would have made of all this were he alive today. The laws he enunciated, and which have guided so many libraries and librarians are in many ways the forerunners of the Open Access movement that is so important now. The five “laws” that SRR stated (with slight rephrasing by me)
1. Books are there to be used
2. Every reader needs his or her particular books
3. Every book has its specific reader(s)
4. It is important to save the time of the reader
5. A library is a growing organism
still need to be remembered, perhaps with some modification as we redefine our notions of book, of reader, and even of library. The printed book has evolved to its electronic counterpart, the eBook, but in addition, we need to include, as essential components to our scholarship documents of various forms and formats: journal articles, newspaper articles, blogs, audio and video files, and so on. Readers need not be just human readers- we already have robots that search the web, for instance the Googlebots for information and indexing. And of course the library need not be a physical space, since any library today uses resources that are physically located anywhere, and it needs resources that have to be elsewhere since what a good library can offer its readers today vastly exceeds what it can hold in its physical space. The development of resources such as JSTOR are also significant in this regard as many journals go from being purely print entities to purely electronic entities. Devices such as iPads and Kindle or their clones make the portabilities of the library today a reality. And yet, Ranganathan remains a relevant, and in many ways, a guiding spirit.
Ranganathan’s laws capture the essential spirit of service that is needed in librarianship- to enable others to access information, and use it for their own benefits. And in the process, to remember that the voulme of information must increase, and therefore to plan for it. To remember that in order to locate the information, it should be stored logically, and preserved carefully.
Many of the new technologies- and I believe that Ranganathan would have welcomed them- make the stewardship of information easier than ever before, to ensure that libraries can be better and that libraries remain as relevant to the generation and preservation of human knowledge. We need to reaffirm the importance of the library to the academic community, and today is a good day to remember that the intellectual hub of an institution of higher education is its library.