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.
Ranganathan, born to Ramamrita, in Tanjore in British-ruled India 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 organised 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.
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.
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).
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 honoured 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 27 September 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 honour. Ranganathan's autobiography, published serially during his life, is titled A Librarian Looks Back.
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