Ranganathan's Monologue on Melvil Dewey (Part one)
Transcribed from a cassette in the collection of the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto, retrieved by William Denton and posted on his Web site. Ellipses mean I could not make out the words.There are undoubtedly many errors in my transcription. Feel free to improve it. [Note: The links in the body of the text lead to the evidence Terrell Russell kindly supplied when he suggested corrections to this transcript.]
Tags: Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan Melvil Dewey librarianship library science five laws
Added: 3 years ago
Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan (12 August 1892 – 27 September 1972) was a mathematician and librarian from India. His most notable contributions to the field were his five laws of library science and the development of the first major analytico-synthetic classification system, the colon classification. He is considered to be the father of library science, documentation, and information science in India and is widely known throughout the rest of the world for his fundamental thinking in the field. His birthday is observed every year as the National Library Day in India.
He was a university librarian and professor of library science at Benares Hindu University (1945–47) and professor of library science at the University of Delhi (1947–55). The last appointment made him director of the first Indian school of librarianship to offer higher degrees. He was president of the Indian Library Association from 1944 to 1953. In 1957 he was elected an honorary member of the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID) and was made a vice president for life of the Library Association of Great Britain.
Early life and education
Ranganathan was born on 12 August 1892 to Ramamrita, in Tanjore of British-ruled India. He was born in the small town of Shiyali (now known as Sirkazhi), in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.
Ranganathan began his professional life as a mathematician; he earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in mathematics from Madras Christian College in his home province, and then went on to earn a teaching license. His lifelong goal was to teach mathematics, and he was successively a member of the mathematics faculties at universities in Mangalore, Coimbatore and Madras (all within the span of five years). As a mathematics professor, he published a handful of papers, mostly on the history of mathematics. His career as an educator was somewhat hindered by a handicap of stammering (a difficulty Ranganathan gradually overcame in his professional life). The Government of India awarded Padmashri to Dr. S.R. Ranganathan in 1957 for valuable contributions to Library Science.
In 1923, the University of Madras created the post of University Librarian to oversee their poorly organized collection. Among the 900 applicants for the position, none had any formal training in librarianship, and Ranganathan's' handful of papers satisfied the search committee's requirement that the candidate should have a research background. His sole knowledge of librarianship came from an Encyclopædia Britannica article he read days before the interview.
Ranganathan was initially reluctant to pursue the position (he had forgotten about his application by the time he was called for an interview there). To his own surprise, he received the appointment and accepted the position in January 1924.
At first, Ranganathan found the solitude of the position was intolerable. After a matter of weeks, complaining of total boredom, he went back to the university administration to beg for his teaching position back. A deal was struck that Ranganthan would travel to London to study contemporary Western practices in librarianship, and that, if he returned and still rejected librarianship as a career, the mathematics lectureship would be his again.
Ranganathan travelled to University College London, which at that time housed the only graduate degree program in library science in Britain. At University College, he earned marks only slightly above average, but his mathematical mind latched onto the problem of classification, a subject typically taught by rote in library programs of the time. As an outsider, he focused on what he perceived to be flaws with the popular decimal classification, and began to explore new possibilities on his own.
He also devised the Acknowledgment of Duplication, which states that any system of classification of information necessarily implies at least two different classifications for any given datum. He anecdotally proved this with the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) by taking several books and showing how each might be classified with two totally different resultant DDC numbers. (For example, a book on "warfare in India" could be classified under "warfare" or "India". Even a general book on warfare could be classified under "warfare," "history," "social organisation," "Indian essays," or many other headings, depending upon the viewpoint, needs, and prejudices of the classifier.) To a mind such as Ranganathan's, a structured, step-by-step system acknowledging each facet of the topic of the work was immensely preferable to the anarchy and "intellectual laziness" (as he termed it) of the DDC. The importance of this concept, given the poor technology for information retrieval available at that time, cannot be overestimated. Even in modern terms the concept is attractive for its simplicity, predictability, and depth in comparison to classification on a linguistic level, such as is used by search engines such as Google.
He began drafting the system that was ultimately to become the Colon Classification while in England, and refined it as he returned home, even going so far as to reorder the ship's library on the voyage back to India. He initially got the idea for the system from seeing a set of Meccano in a toy store in London. Ranganathan returned with great interest for libraries and librarianship and a vision of its importance for the Indian nation. He returned to and held the position of University Librarian at the University of Madras for twenty years. During that time, he helped to found the Madras Library Association, and lobbied actively for the establishment of free public libraries throughout India and for the creation of a comprehensive national library.
Ranganathan was considered by many to be a workaholic. During his two decades in Madras, he consistently worked 13-hour days, seven days a week, without taking a vacation for the entire time. Although he married in November 1928, he returned to work the afternoon following the marriage ceremony. A few years later, he and his wife Sarada had a son. The couple remained married until Ranganathan's death.
The first few years of Ranganathan's tenure at Madras were years of deliberation and analysis as he addressed the problems of library administration and classification. It was during this period that he produced what have come to be known as his two greatest legacies: his five laws of library science (1931) and the colon classification system (1933).
Regarding the political climate at the time, Ranganathan took his position at the University of Madras in 1924. Gandhi had been imprisoned in 1922 and was released around the time that Ranganathan was taking that job. Ranganathan sought to institute massive changes to the library system and to write about such things as open access and education for all which essentially had the potential to enable the masses and encourage civil discourse (and disobedience). Although there's no evidence that Ranganthan did any of this for political reasons, his changes to the library had the result of educating more people, making information available to all, and even aiding women and minorities in the information-seeking process.
The Northern Ireland crisis got an unexpected metaphorical reference in a book by S. R. Ranganathan, as "making an Ulster of the ... law of parsimony", complaining about the harmful effects of low budget on the good functioning of a library.
After two decades of serving as librarian at Madras – a post he had intended to keep until his retirement, Ranganathan retired from his position after conflicts with a new university vice-chancellor became intolerable. At the age of 54, he submitted his resignation and, after a brief bout with depression, accepted a professorship in library science at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, his last formal academic position, in August 1945. There, he cataloged the university's collection; by the time he left four years later, he had classified over 100,000 items personally.
Ranganathan headed the Indian Library Association from 1944 to 1953, but was never a particularly adept administrator, and left amid controversy when the Delhi Public Library chose to use the Dewey Decimal Classification system instead of his own Colon Classification. He held an honorary professorship at Delhi University from 1949 to 1955 and helped build that institution's library science programs with S. Dasgupta, a former student of his. In 1951, Ranganathan released an album on Folkways Records entitled, Readings from the Ramayana: In Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita.
Ranganathan briefly moved to Zurich, Switzerland, from 1955 to 1957, when his son married a European girl; the unorthodox relationship did not sit well with Ranganathan, although his time in Zurich allowed him to expand his contacts within the European library community, where he gained a significant following. However, he soon returned to India and settled in the city of Bangalore, where he would spend the rest of his life. While in Zurich, though, he endowed a professorship at Madras University in honor of his wife of thirty years, largely as an ironic gesture in retaliation for the persecution he suffered for many years at the hands of that university's administration.
Ranganathan's final major achievement was the establishment of the Documentation Research and Training Centre as a department and research center in the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore in 1962, where he served as honorary director for five years. In 1965, the Indian government honored him for his contributions to the field with a rare title of "National Research Professor."
In the final years of his life, Ranganathan finally succumbed to ill health, and was largely confined to his bed. On September 27, 1972, he died of complications from bronchitis.
Upon the centenary of his birth in 1992, several biographical volumes and collections of essays on Ranganathan's influence were published in his honor. Ranganathan's autobiography, published serially during his life, is titled A Librarian Looks Back.
And so, I am very delighted that you asked me to give my experiences with Melvil Dewey in chronological sequence.
My first contact with him was in London. It was not as person to person but as mind to mind. I was then in the University College. It was 1924. I hated to become a librarian. I just went into the college ___ library. By chance I found a classic great catalog of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library by MacMillan. It thrilled me. I found it was all arranged by the DC numbers. .... That very day I decided I should like to be ...
After that my contact came in 1932. I had published my first book, The Five Laws of Library Science, in 1931. Naturally I sent a copy of it to Melvil Dewey, although I had not known him. He had not known me. We had not even corresponded. As a young aspirant publishing a book, I had sent it to him for an inscription. But to my great delight and surprise, it brought a letter from him. That letter was most interesting, according to the most characteristic [?]. He had found out a few lines in the book where I had reference to classification. And he wrote to me .... saying, "You say you write in your book that the DC has been mangled by the ....Let me know the addresses of the libraries. I am going to sue them in a court of law."
Then came the sentence, very good advice to me: "I find you are designing a new scheme of classification. Let me tell you how dangerous it is." I am talking from memory; I am not quoting . "It's very dangerous. I have suffered. People attribute all kinds of motives to you. Apart from that, if anything goes wrong, they will pounce upon you. It may cost your appointment. On the other hand, if you use a scheme which is established, which is used everywhere, which is not yours, if anything goes wrong, you will go scot free. Why do you think of doing another scheme of classification?"
Then there was another statement. "I know that DC is fully American, or at best Anglo-Saxon, and I know that I have not provided adequate placings in it for Indian thought and culture. Instead of doing a new scheme, why don't you write out a schedule in classics, Indian literature, Indian thought. I shall incorporate it in DC."
Well, this thrilled me very much but unfortunately my scheme, to use one of the modern terminologies, was not an enumerative scheme. It was an analytico-synthetic schedule. So it was difficult for me to send him a schedule unless I worked out ready made schedule for all possible Indian literature. That was too much of a task because my hands were then quite full with building up the university library, building up the colon classification, building the classificatory catalog code, building the administrative procedure. It's difficult for me to send you a schedule. My book on colon classification will be out next year, and if after producing it, if you think that I can of be any help in collaborating with you, I would be most happy. Well, next year my book did come out. But unfortunately, Dewey had died before my book came out. That was [one of?] the saddest experiences in my life.
I know then he had devoted so much thought to my five laws, he could have done much more to Colon Classification. Number one I would have benefited it would be to have included it with all his experiences [?]. Number two, we would have collaborated so as to enrich both the DC and the CC.
That is my second contact. And then comes the third contact. That was again, because he was dead, that happened in 1948. In that year, I was a member of the faculty of the UNESCO International School for Public Librarians. And the dean of that faculty was Mr Trudall [?], the inspector of libraries in Norway at that time. I met him first in Oslo and then I met him Manchester. Then I met him Oslo. He had not revealed he had been a student of Melvil Dewey. But we were thrown together for a month in Manchester. We had to spend a good deal of time together. Then slowly came the information that he was a student of Melvil Dewey. Well, we had several talks where he reviewed some of his reminiscences. I was extremely glad to get all that information. That was the third contact.
The fourth contact was in 1950 [1958?]. I was then in the United States and the American Library Association had its conference in Cleveland[1 2 3]. That was the jubilee year for the Classification and Cataloging division, and I was put down to give the jubilee address. As a result of it, I was invited to the jubilee dinner, and .... evening. At that time, the organizer had been very thoughtful in bringing to that dinner an old lady who was also a student of Melvil Dewey. We sat together at the dining table. We had many reminisces. And one of them is most amusing. That shows the courage and the determination and the enormous powerful strategy which Melvil Dewey should have had [?]. She said that when Dewey came to the Columbia University, he was insisting that he should have lady assistants. But the Columbia university in those days did not allow ladies into the university building. So the authorities would not allow it. But he would not have any other assistants. Then they found a compromise. The lady said that they agreed that the lady assistants of Melvil Dewey would be allowed to come into the building not through the main door but by the spiral service staircase in the back of the building. Well, that compromise was accepted. After some time, Melvil Dewey reported to the authorities that that spiral staircase was missing and that his students were unable to come into the building. Then they were in a great fix. Are they to put up another spiral and wait for a week or ten days without work in the library or what were they to do? Melvil Dewey I suppose did not even smile on that occasion for he was very very serious looking, and they said "Alright, I shall allow your lady assistants to come through the main door." That's a very remarkable experience I heard from that old student of Melvil Dewey.
And then Miss ___ said she's hear to make a survey of the DC position in the Asian countries. Im telling her now that the very first gentleman that thought about finding out the needs of the different countries in the adoption of DC was Melvil Dewey himself. As my contact with him ..a few weeks ago shows, his mind had already wandered into India and into Asia. And if he had lived a little longer, probably he would have already done something which Miss ___ is trying to do now. What is more important, as a result of my correspondence with him and as the result of the needs of correct education methods, I had been teaching classification using both CC and DC simultaneously and making a comparative study of them in almost every other, both in practical hours and theory hours Well, that has disclosed several points where the DC requires to be amplified to make it suitable for Asian culture and Asian literature. So I come second in line, next to Melvil Dewey.
And then there was the Indian Library Association's conference in 1944 in Jaipur when some of the friends wanted to work out a schedule for some of the Indian classics for the DC. They did work out something. They asked me whether it was tolerable. I said it was tolerable. And then they said they were going to adopt it. Then I remembered what Melvil Dewey had written to me about the libraries mangling his scheme. I said, "You don't know what you are in for! If you, although Melvil Dewey is not longer living, you don't know what kind of legal successors he has left and if you begin to mangle it again with your own numbers, you may have to face a court of law." So I advised them to write to Lake Placid club and then get their permission before they did anything. But I don't know what they did exactly, but I don't think anything has been done, no such scheme has been published, so far as I know,I did not know.
So the Indian Library Association was the third in succession. And then came the three representatives of the international relations office of the American Library Association, Jack Bolton [?], and then Swank [?] and Asheim  who had been passing through India several times. Well, at least Jack Bolton has done it several times. Asheim has done it once. Shanky [?] has done it once I suppose. They should have felt the need for doing something. Therefore, it will be a very thin link in the succession. So the fourth link is always a weak link in my scheme, and so it was a weak link. [Laughter]
And then comes the fifth link, in the form of Miss ___. And you know in my scheme five represents energy, five represents beauty [?] and five represents the ladies [??]. And it is a very wonderful coincidence that mnemonic should work so well. And if my mnemonic means anything at all, it means a lot to me, as a lot of my friends know. Her mission is going to be a great success. This is the fifth in the lineage to adapt DC to Indian conditions.
Well, after that, another contact which I had very recently when I was in Oslo. It was last month that I was there. They had united when I was at Elsinore, I went there, they had plainly arranged for a lunch in which both Dr. [Wilhelm] Munthe and ... joined us. And we were about 15 or 20 librarians and we had all kind of reminisces ranging from the days of Dewey down to that minute. In the course of the conversation I discovered -- rather ... told me, whispering into my ears really -- "Look here, Munthe once wrote a memorial on Dewey. He had never published it. Why not get it out of him?" Well, that whisper I magnified, said it loudly, and I said "Munthe you ought to give it to me." Munthe said, "I had left it somewhere. I shall have to search for it." Then I forget the lady sitting on my right, I charged her: "It is your duty to help that old gentleman [?] somehow to find that out that memoir and the memoir should reach me and I'm going to publish it." And then I turned to ... and said "You have prompted me to book Munthe and I've done it and you must pay your price for it." And he said, "What's the price?" "The price is that you must write out some reminisces of Melvil Dewey so I can back Munthe with these first-hand reminisces." I am expecting them any moment, and the only cause of delays is perhaps is ... I had to give him something in return, an article. And I hope to do that. I wanted to do it before....whether I do it or after I come back I don't know. But I'm sure to get back Munthe 's article. You know Munthe is a very respected man of our profession. He was a president of IFLA [International Federation of Library Associations] for several years and a very generous and fine gentleman. And what he says I have great respect for his words. He was not a student of Melvil Dewey but he was a great admirer of Melvil Dewey as I am. I hope something very useful will come out of the memoir which I hope to get.