Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists

Claire Rasmussen

Before becoming a content strategist, I worked as an academic librarian for five years. Although academia and consulting can sometimes seem like different planets, content strategists and librarians have a lot in common—after all, we all love content. Selecting it. Categorizing it. Making it findable and relevant for users.

S.R. Ranganathan, father of library science, author of The 5 Laws of Library Science, and creator of the Colon Classification System.

Image courtesy of Aaron Schmidt

Like content strategists, librarians enjoy a good credo. In 1931, S.R. Ranganathan developed five laws of library science, as a philosophy behind the work librarians do. He said:

  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.

With a few simple adaptations, Ranganathan’s laws serve as good reminders for content strategists, too. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Content is for use

Librarians love a hard-luck case. I’ve known many a library staff member who experienced heartfelt regret at having to weed out titles used only once in the past 30 years—because what about that one patron out there for whom this is the perfect source? And what about the poor, neglected book—why doesn’t someone,anyone, love it?

This kind of heartache is also familiar to content strategists, when our clients express reluctance to part with that beloved, woefully underused PDF leftover from the days of yore. It’s important to remember, websites are not the Library of Alexandria, charged with collecting all of the world’s knowledge.

When content isn’t being used, it’s best not to let it sit there sad and neglected. Maybe that PDF is brimming with good information, and all it needs is an HTML makeover to make a good impression. Or, maybe it simply can’t be saved. If we can’t make it relevant, we need to make it disappear.

2. Every user his or her content

Wouldn’t it be great if all of your content could be targeted to one specific user: say, Harry, age 56, a prospective customer in Reno, Nevada? Realistically, businesses have a lot of different audiences: employees, customers, partners, and so on. Every user his or her content tells us that different kinds of users need different kinds of content. The trick is making all that different content findable without asking every user to wade through a top-heavy navigation system or a hopelessly cluttered homepage.

Let me tell you how we do it in libraries: We provide different kinds of collections for different kinds of users—and patrons prefer that it that way. Libraries have browsing collections that are easy to find and intended to appeal to the population at large, and special collections with limited, rarefied interest.

Patrons looking for the latest bestseller want to find it as quickly as possible. Conversely, the patron who wants to browse some obscure special collection (i.e.,nurse romance novels or bloodletting resources) generally enjoys the pleasure of the hunt, especially if you make the search enjoyable and stroke their ego a bit for their exceptional—even if only exceptionally weird—taste.

Painful as it is to admit, all content is not created equal. It may be that the audience for some content is small. The enlightened few, if you will. Those users need access to their content, but it can be ensconced somewhere that is out of the way yet easily findable. That might mean making an intranet for employees or a partner portal. Or it may mean ensuring your website’s keyword search works effectively.

‍Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Libraries

3. Every content its user AND

4. Save the time of the user

The third law, every content its user, encourages us to act as modern day matchmakers between information and users. Rather romantically, Ranganathan says that even as users are looking for content, that content is “looking” for them, too. The fourth law, save the time of the user, reminds us that users don’t have a lot of time to spend in the matchmaking process.

So, the pressure is on. Both librarians and content strategists are responsible for helping content find the users that want and need it the most—as quickly as possible.

In libraries, we push content by creating book displays with poster board, glitter, and other shiny stuff. In the web world, we use things like SEO and information architecture. Regardless of where your content lives, one thing is certain: Well-groomed (organized), articulate (well-written), and well-connected (findable) content is far more likely to reach the right user, right when they need it.

5. The content corpus is a growing organism

Of all the things we can learn from Ranganathan, the fifth law may be the most important.

A lot has changed since The 5 Laws of Library Science were created in 1931. Content no longer lives predominantly in the library setting—it is now part of almost every aspect of our lives. As a result, today’s poor users are tasked with sifting through more and more dubious content to get to the good stuff. This is not news.

Way back in 1998, Roger Ebert said, "Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly." Fourteen years later, the Web is still in need of tidying and we have the additional task of accommodating an increasing number of platforms.

There is a joke around Brain Traffic that most content strategists fantasize about being a librarian. Well, if you’re one of those fantasizers, you’re in luck. For hundreds of years, librarians have been the primary caretakers of the content corpus. But somebody needs to care for the content that never makes it into a library’s collections, too.

As content strategists, caring for the content biome is an important part of our job. We are in a position to help keep the litter to a minimum and ensure viable, valuable content can flourish. How? By helping our clients strategize (hey hey) how to create content responsibly—advising them to focus not just on what they can do, but what they can do well.

So go on. Make Ranganathan proud.