Off the Shelf: Books are for use and other laws of librarianship

When I started my library degree, I planned to be an archivist preserving old documents. My favorite part of my job at the university archives turned out to be helping the people who came in the archives to track down what they needed. Throughout my career, I continue to find that archives and libraries really aren’t about the collections, they are about the people who the collections serve.

In 1931, S.R. Ranganathan, a librarian and mathematician from India, developed five laws or core principles of library science. The laws are a bit dated as they only reference books, and libraries today are so much more than just books. Some librarians have suggested new versions and interpretations have evolved. Even so, if you replace books with library resources, the original five simple statements have stood the test of time and are still taught today.

Books are for use” is Ranganathan’s first law of library science. It reminds librarians that the point isn’t solely to build a great collection of stuff or preserve old documents. The reason books exist and libraries or archives exist is to be used. Service and access should be at the heart of what we do as librarians. Libraries, especially public libraries, should err on the side of access and find ways to make resources as widely available as possible. Books that sit on a shelf and gather dust aren’t doing their job. In the same way, librarians whose main focus is on protecting the books from use aren’t fulfilling their role for the community.

Of course, books that are rare or fragile need extra care and should be preserved and protected so that their information can continue to be used. In a museum, a book might be an artifact to be viewed in a display case as some books truly are works of art. In libraries, books and other resources are there to be used for what they contain.

At our library, we have the Burlington Collection with works about Burlington or by Burlington authors or creators. We may have a second copy of a book in the circulating collection that people can checkout, but the ones in this special collection have to stay in the library and be requested to be viewed. In addition to books, this collection includes diaries, photographs, ledgers, letters, and maps that are one of a kind. The goal isn’t to prevent use; it is to protect the item for future use because it would be difficult or impossible to replace. While we treat them with extra care, these items are all in the library catalog for users to request and view in our local history room.

Sometimes our work to balance access and preservation means reformatting. For example, a volunteer has been working for years scanning images from our collection so that users can view the image without risk of damage to the original. We started with glass plate negatives. These images are literally made of glass, so quite vulnerable. You can view some of them at

When it comes to our circulating collection, those materials are for use. A picture book that has been on the shelf for years and is still in perfect condition is a sad sight. A little wear tells you that the book found its readers.

Ranganathan’s second and third rules go hand in hand: “Every reader their book” and “Every book its reader.” We serve a wide variety of people with a wide variety of interests and needs. A librarian’s role is to create a collection that includes many topics, genres, and formats so that every reader can find their book. It is important for people of all ages to access books that represent them and their interests and needs. It is equally important to find books that open us up to the experiences of others and let us learn about the wider world.

While some books have many readers, others may only fit a small group of readers. A book doesn’t have to be a popular, well-known blockbuster as long as it finds its reader and serves their needs.

Every book will not be for every reader. No books are required reading at a public library and that is part of the joy of public libraries. To be honest, there are whole sections of the collection that don’t interest me. Horror movies aren’t my thing, but I know many people love them, and our collection has lots of them. That’s okay, because there are plenty of things in the collection that I’m interested in trying. I suspect many of those horror readers and viewers wouldn’t like what I enjoy, and that’s okay, too. These two laws remind us that librarians collect for everyone, not just what they like or is valuable to them and that librarians are called upon to not judge other individuals for what resources they choose to use. At your public library, you can browse and find what you want and leave the other books to find their reader. They should be there for their reader, even if that isn’t you.

The fourth law is to “Save the time of the reader.” Again, we come back to prioritizing the user and access. Throughout history, librarians have developed organizational systems and catalogs to make each item in a collection findable and to save the user time. In fact, Ranganathan himself created an organizational system called colon classification that is still used at some libraries in India. In this country, you are most likely to find the Dewey Decimal system at public libraries and the Library of Congress system at academic libraries. Our shelvers are dedicated to ensuring that all items get back on the shelf in a timely manner and in the correct place in the system. With our collection of over 160,000 physical items, keeping track of each item so it can be quickly found is important.

Libraries have adopted technology to save time and increase access. Just this month, our library marked 30 years since the day we moved to a computerized checkout system. Today, our catalog is online, so users can find what they want from home and even request items so staff members can pull them for easy pickup. Many of our resources are downloadable or streaming, not even requiring you to come in the library to use them.

The last law of librarianship, “The library is a growing organism,” has been very clear to me in my years as a librarian. Change is constant and something that we need to be actively pursuing. Our library team is continuously looking for new resources to offer and ways to expand access. For example, just this month, our library added access to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal online for our cardholders. We also added sensory bags to improve accessibility of the library by offering tools to make a visit more comfortable for individuals, especially families with children who have sensory-related needs.

Stop by your library, call, or reach out by email or social media to learn more about what you can access. Let the staff team help you find your book or other resource.

See you at the library!