The five laws of information management

In 1931 the librarian S.R. Ranganathan published ‘The Five Laws of Library Science’, a set of core tenets which contributed to the foundation of modern librarianship. These five laws were remarkably prescient and they remain as relevant to libraries today as they were last century. This article introduces an adaptation of the five laws to define the fundamental principles of information management.

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As a testament to their ongoing value, Ranganathan’s five laws are still widely taught, or at least discussed, in postgraduate librarianship and information science courses around the world. The laws describe a philosophy of how library services should be managed with respect to the library clients (readers) and information objects (books). The Five Laws of Library Science are:

  1. Books are for use
  2. Every reader his (or her) book
  3. Every book its reader
  4. Save the time of the reader
  5. The library is a growing organism

This article won’t delve any further into library science, but if you’d like to read more about the development and specific meanings of these laws, the Wikipedia entry is a great place to start. Over the last few years, several variations of the five laws have been proposed which acknowledge the information-rich age in which we now live. Interestingly, none of these adaptations specifically address information management:

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Information management as a discipline owes its development to the robust traditions of library science. So, can S.R. Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science be applied to information management in a meaningful way? Yes, absolutely: the relationships between people and the information objects they require are analogous across both disciplines.

The following laws are applicable to all information professionals who manage data, documents, media or information in any format. These laws can be followed to enhance the design of information systems and processes or to guide an overall approach to governance.

The Five Laws of Information Management

1. Information is for use

The reason for any information to be created, collected or curated should be for use: to meet some immediate or future need. If this law isn’t followed, information may be blindly produced and hoarded for no real, justifiable reason. Additionally, useful information can be over-managed – controlled so strictly that it cannot be easily accessed and leveraged. The fact that information should exist to be used – to be understood, ingested, applied, transformed or remixed – is a key principle for any information professional. This law is related to the idea that ‘information wants to be free’.

2. Every user needs information

Even the most unlikely user will require access to some piece of information. All users should be empowered to find and use the information they need. It’s all too common to see unnecessarily tight permissions within information systems, where information is locked down and irretrievable by a regular user – this kind of governance stifles creativity and productivity. Complex access controls require a huge amount of administration to get right and it can be easy to let that control slip when managing permissions on a large scale. Instead, non-sensitive information should be as accessible and free as possible. Greater attention can then be paid to locking down high-risk material instead.

3. All information has a user

The second law’s other half. If some information object, or information type has value, then it should controlled in such a way that it is retrievable – even if it seems relatively obscure. This law is about encouraging ‘serendipitous discovery’, the concept that people will accidentally stumble upon information which matters to them. It’s difficult to know what you don’t know – often information seekers aren’t able to articulate a need using the ‘correct’ terminology or search strategy. Good system design can compensate for this.

4. Save the time of the user

There is no greater purpose for an information professional than to make information more readily accessible and more easily used. Information objects should be well described with accurate metadata. Information should be searchable and retrievable. Not just retrievable, but retrievable with context, so the user can understand exactly what they have found and whether their information need has been met.

5. Information always grows

It’s a truism, but one worth bearing in mind: information repositories of all formats will continue to grow and evolve over time. It’s important to prepare for growth and change in the design of any information solution. The way this can be achieved is heavily dependent on context : it may be making sure there’s enough spare shelf space in a hardcopy filing room; ensuring there is scalable capacity and bandwidth in a cloud storage service or specifying that extensibility is built into a new information system. There is no such thing as a futureproof system, but information professionals should acknowledge the inevitability of change and not allow themselves to be tied to a rigid framework.

Although these five laws represent only a small update to the original ‘Five Laws of Library Science’, it is proposed that there is value in defining a distinct set of guiding laws specifically for information management.

[Featured Image: PAUL, J.B. and REID, J.J., 1882. Ballads of the bench and bar; or, idle lays of the parliament house. Edinburgh: Privately printed. p. 54]

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