This post is the first in a series sparked by my selection of books for the History of Cataloguing section of my reading list for the core cataloguing module on the MA LIS.
I’ve spoken before about Ranganathan’s continuing relevance to information professionals in the 21st century, and he features in any trainings that I run on the principles of cataloguing. Indeed, I start the module with a lecture on Cataloguing 101, which gives students “a whistlestop tour of all the things that you will hear again over the next ten weeks in a more detailed way,” and Ranganathan is slide number 2, after Backstage Library Works’ excellent Indiana Jones image “Cataloging: the Lost Art”. (Fun fact: Harrison Ford donated his whip to the Institute of Archaeology, and so is listed with other donors on a shiny brass plaque).
The point is that Ranganathan’s Five Laws should permeate everything we do as librarians, and this is also true of cataloguing. I thought it would be helpful to look here at what Ranganathan himself said about Cataloguing in each of the five sections of this book. We’re using the 1931 edition, which, conveniently, has been digitised and is online free thanks to the Hathi Trust.
BOOKS ARE FOR USE
“A modern librarian, who has faith in the law that ‘BOOKS ARE FOR USE’, is happy only when his readers make his shelves constantly empty.” – p.6.
“The Library requires on its Staff persons who have scholarship in Mark Pattison’s sense i.e. judgment, discipline and scientific habit. Their speciality must be bibliography and their attitude must be that of a student.” – p.47.
Library staff “should never forget that in libraries books are collected for USE, kept for USE, and served for USE. The endless technical processes and routine — getting suggestions from experts, acquiring by purchase or gift, accessioning, classifying, cataloguing, shelf-registering, shelving, charging and discharging — all these are carried on only FOR USE.” – p. 59.
“A library is a collection of books kept for use. Librarianship, then, is connecting a user and a book. Hence the very life of a library is the personal service given to the people.” – p. 67.
In this first law, then, Ranganathan is largely arguing for the attitude, personality and education required by library staff. He gives an example of a hypothetical conversation with someone who does not see the challenges of indexing and mis-labels it “cataloguing”, which is a pity, as this in itself hints that Ranganathan did not hold cataloguing in such high esteem in terms of the intellectual decisions it sometimes requires. Nonetheless, the major thrust of this chapter is that we have passed out of an era he described as “BOOKS ARE FOR PRESERVATION” and into the era of “BOOKS ARE FOR USE” and this has implications on how we conduct our business – in all departments of the library.
From this, not only can we see that in the modern day, in which more visits are made to the library’s online catalogue than to the library itself, the catalogue is a vital tool for enabling BOOKS TO BE USED, but also that our attitude as cataloguers should support the ethos of getting books and other items into the hands of those who seek them – that the “technical processes” Ranganathan highlights (including cataloguing), are not ends in themselves, but part of a greater aspiration to provide service – “personal service” as he puts it – to library users.
EVERY READER HIS OR HER BOOK
The second law is concerned with egalitarianism: that everyone, regardless of social class or gender, should have access to information via the library. Those with mental health conditions or disabilities (including blindness) should be entitled to expect equity of access. Prison libraries, school libraries, local studies libraries and naval libraries are all given as examples of environments in which the librarian should be able to tailor their services to meet their users’ needs.
“A third obligation that the Second Law would impose on the Library Staff refers to the catalogue …” – p.297.
“The Second Law would throw on the Library Staff the burden of readily helping the reader to find HIS MATERIALS from all possible books housed in the library. This obligation can be discharged only by making the catalogue fully analytic and giving profuse subject cross-references … If the cross-references are not made sufficiently full, the library may have to turn away many readers unserved, while the materials sought by them are standing silently on the shelves.” – p.298.
EVERY BOOK ITS READER
“The catalogue also can be of immense help in this matter.” – p.307.
“It even occasionally happens that a reader is more favourably impressed about the usefulness of a book when he sees its catalogue entry, although its size, get-up and other features might lead him to overlook it while examining the shelf.” – p.307.
“There are certain classes of entries which are specially conducive to the fulfilment of the Third Law. They are Series Entries and Subject Cross-Reference Entries …” – p.308.
“The Third Law would therefore urge the library authorities not to plead the bogey of economy and shortage of funds when the proposal for the necessary staff for cross-referencing work comes up before them …” – p.311.
Sadly, in the current era, we have seen too many library directors ignore Ranganathan’s warning: cataloguing staff are small in numbers, and in some libraries, there may not even be staff specifically charged with catalogue maintenance: books are bought shelf-ready and catalogue records ingested unchecked.
SAVE THE TIME OF THE READER
“Another factor that may lead the reader to waste his time in getting his materials is due to the inevitable composite nature of most of the books. All books are not monographs. Very often an excellent account of a specified topic may occur in a chapter or even in a few pages of a book whose main interest may be some other topic or topics … If a catalogue is made up only of a single entry for each book and makes no attempt whatever to give analytic cross-references, the only course open to the reader is to examine every book to see if it gives any information on the subject of his study…” – p.351.
“If it is not done, what is the wastage that would be involved in our talented high paid research worker spending some hours of his time in the search?” – p.354.
Ranganathan estimates based on his experience (4 years at that time) that five members of staff are required to cope with the subject analysis and cross-referencing of a library acquiring 6,000 volumes. He goes on to argue for the need for periodical indexing services.
Looking back from the 21st century, we know that indexing of articles is a huge industry, powering our discovery layers to include journals alongside our catalogue entries, and the citation and bibliometrics systems such as SCOPUS and Web of Science. We also know that the equivalent work has not been possible in our libraries because of staff cuts. I’ll just leave that here for anyone with budgetary responsibility to ponder …
A LIBRARY IS A GROWING ORGANISM
“Another part of the library building which should be generously provided for in consequence of the growth in stock is the catalogue room or the room in which the catalogue cabinets are kept…” – p.392.
Of course, nowadays our catalogues are online, so the space for them is not only physical (server rooms, bays of OPACs) but also virtual (server space) and educational (staff need to know how to programme, manage and train users in the use of the catalogue).
My two favourite research libraries still have some space dominated by their old catalogues: the London Library, which has their pre-computer records near the photocopy space, and Cambridge University Library, which has recently redesigned its wonderful catalogue hall to include comfortable seating. They acknowledge that some records still have to make the transition from the offline world to the online one, and so these spaces are far, far more than a sentimental reminder of our library past.
Just so, I would argue, with Ranganathan. He certainly was more interested in Classification than Descriptive Cataloguing, and his Five Laws range far and wide through our professional activities, with even wider ranging examples. However, his thoughts on Cataloguing do still resonate into the current era. Moreover, the axiomatic nature of his Laws‘ expression leaves plenty of space for us all to reflect on how they impact on our cataloguing practice, and how our cataloguing practice, in turn, impacts on our library users.
Image: Aaron Schmidt, copyright commons, some rights reserved.
S.R. Ranganathan (1931). The Five Laws of Library Science Hathi Trust Digital Library