Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXIII No. 16, December 1-15, 2023
It is my good fortune that I could meet Dr. Rao Sahib Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, the doyen of library science, on many occasions in the late 1960s in Bangalore where I was working with the Railway Mail Service a wing of the postal department. He was undoubtedly the greatest scientist in his field that 20th century India had produced. His steadfast dedication to the subject he had chosen brought to him and his country everlasting glory.
What triggered my urge to get to know him intimately was a small piece of writing that appeared in Kalki, a well-known Tamil weekly, around 1965 about Dr. S.R. Ranganathan’s unique contribution to library science. It also touched on his personal profile. He had the status of National Research Professor of Library Science at that time. He had established Documentation Research and Training Centre in Bangalore. He was chairing a number of weekly colloquia or large academic seminars in DRTC. My residence was just a kilometer away from DRTC. Hence it was an easy ten-minute walk for me to attend the sessions.
On a Wednesday evening I walked into DRTC. I found a frail charming angelic figure sitting on a chair. He was none other than Dr. S.R.R. He was wearing a long coat and dhoti. The traditional turban was however absent. There were about twenty librarians drawn from various parts of the city assembled there. While they were actively discussing a topic, I remained silent, as the nuances of the subject were not familiar to me. Dr. S.R.R.’s voice was mellifluous and his language was free from jargon. While leaving the hall I smiled at him and he reciprocated. I attended six or seven such seminars in DRTC.
Sometime in 1971 I went to Dr. S.R.R’s house with my friend S. Balasundararaman, accountant in Head Record Office of the Railway Mail Service. A warm welcome was accorded to us by Dr. S.R.R. After exchanging a few pleasantries we invited him to address our friends in Central Civil Services in Bangalore on the importance of library in society (as we had already heard giants from Karnataka on different subjects of social relevance). He expressed his inability to do so owing to his failing health. However, he added that he would like to meet our friends and be with them for some time after becoming well again. His wife Sarada was beside him and nodded her head in agreement. Alas, ill luck prevented us from hearing him forever. He breathed his last in 1972.
As one being on the wrong side of eightysix, I recollect from the dim recess of my mind some of his achievements which are at once marvelous and striking. The young Ranganathan attended S.M. Hindu High School at Shiyali (now Sirkali) and passed matriculation in March 1909 in first class despite a serious illness. He joined Madras Christian College where he did his Bachelor’s degree in first class in 1913 and then Master’s in 1918. It was followed by an LT (Licentiate in Teaching). He worked as Assistant Lecturer in government colleges at Mangalore and Coimbatore before joining the Presidency College, Madras. Soon he became the favourite of students. During this period, he brought among other things standardisation in test construction.
Ranganathan was appointed librarian of the University of Madras in 1924. The library was functioning in the Museum. Initially he felt it was ‘solitary imprisonment’ for him, but soon he recovered from the disappointment and tried to make it a heaven. The library was moved to the Senate House building directly facing the sea. This provided a welcome change in him and enlarged his vision of bringing books closer to the general public.
Ranganathan left for the United Kingdom on a study-cum-observation tour in September 1924. He stayed in London for about ten months. He visited almost all the libraries in the city. They made a great impact on him. He was happy to find the role libraries played in the life of people. His immense love for books created a ‘social mission’ in him and helped him shape the library movement in the Madras Presidency which encompassed a large part of southern India.
The Madras Library Association founded by Ranganathan became a symbol of the library movement to reach every nook and cranny of the Presidency. Through charts, diagrams and pictures he made efforts to educate the masses in rural India on the importance of reading habit so as to bring about social transformation. The famous ‘Mannargudi Experiment’ (1931) of a travelling library in a bullock cart served the villages around the town for the first time in composite India. It sent waves among the people of our country.
Dr. S.R. Ranganathan is known for his ‘five laws’ (1931) relating to the library and ‘Colon classification’ for informational retrieval. These works are par excellence. The Library movement the world over saw twelve ‘wise men’. They belonged to four different nationalities. Dr S.R.R. is the only one Indian among them. His output is tremendous. It includes sixty books and 2,000 articles. A votary of scientific methodology, this mathematician-turned librarian will be remembered forever.
Note: This reminiscent article was written at the request of A. Kovendan, a dedicated librarian in Chennai and ardent admirer of Dr. S.R.R. It is relevant to the Library Week celebrated from November 14-20, 2023.