The Philosophy Library and PIS: A Community of People and Books

Text by Yuri Gallo, librarian of the Library, read on the occasion of BookCity on November 18, 2021.

§ A Space for Laws

In my contribution I will focus on the reasons for which, as the Philosophy Library, we participated in the PIS cataloging project and on the role we envision for the library in the culture of the university.

To do this, it is necessary to cite the work of Indian librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, one of the 20th century’s foremost theorists of library science. In his first and best-known work Ranganathan outlines five laws of library science that have since become a kind of mantra for all librarians and constitute the most popular formulation of his library-scientific thought, owing to their expressiveness, universality, and extreme concision. They are as follows:  

  • Books are for use.
  • Every reader his or her own book.
  • Every book its reader.
  • Save the time of the reader.
  • The library is a growing organism.³

The depth of Ranganathan’s work provides us with far more than simple work standards and tools. It presents us with a humanist conception, which frames the library in a broader perspective, keeping in mind that its ultimate function is to allow access to knowledge. The centrality of the user and the book’s use are in fact its fundamental features. It is therefore important to work so that everyone can benefit from the available knowledge.

The work carried out with the PIS research group satisfies all five of Ranganathan’s laws and stands out as a necessary activity for the library: innovating in the wake of tradition. 

§ The Library as Conversation

One evolution Ranganathan’s library science has been the participatory library model. Its basic concepts are inclusion, sharing, and collaboration, all of which aim to shift the focus of librarians’ activity from learning products (books, reviews, etc.) to social cohesion and the learning process itself. The theoretical work of the participatory library model has been distilled by R. David Lankes into a general rule: “[the] mission for librarians [is] to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”

According to this theory, which takes up the principles of structuralism, knowledge is a shared process, built day after day by people who interact and converse. The librarian’s job is to play an active role in this process and get the right information to the right people; that is, it consists in a selective dissemination of information. The role and value of librarians lies in their reliability as mediators and facilitators. 

The librarian’s task is not the same as that of the teacher, since the purpose of the interaction with a librarian is not the learning but the creation of the necessary conditions for learning (e.g., as a librarian, I will not be able to teach you anything about aesthetics, but I will put you in the best conditions to learn). 

The library/library science is an idea and a way of envisioning society. It concerns more than just artifacts whose preservation aims at knowledge and facilitating knowledge creation. When we think of a library, we should envision not just a building full of books but a composite community, made of relationships and held together by shared interests. 

If PIS aims to investigate the status of the person and how it is changing, and if we share the idea that the library is made by and for people, then we must accept the idea that the library itself changes and evolves. Unfortunately, institutions move at a slower pace than people, especially in a dynamic human environment such as that of the university, and often prove conservative and unable to keep up. 

I will speak at length about objects, but what I am interested in discussing is the importance of relationships established between objects and with people, and how these relationships are an important factor in knowledge creation and research. 

§ Potential Objects

The object of the work we are discussing today is a bibliography, an ordered collection of artifacts. It is therefore useful to establish the role the latter play in the dynamics that develop in the library. 

To foster conversation and knowledge creation, a library relies on its heritage. This is a practical and effective solution, in line with a library science tradition that has long emphasized the creation and management of collections. But things, like people, are forges of untapped potential that can only be rekindled under favorable cultural conditions. A book is useless until it gets into the hands of the right reader, who in turn may need the right resources to give shape to his or her thinking. A good library does not focus on the voracious accumulation of volumes but selects its objects with the (implicit and explicit) interests and needs of its community in mind. This is because every community, and therefore every library, is unique. 

In fact, each library develops a strong rootedness in its own traditions, its world of reference, and its cultural heritage. The traditions gradually determine its character, shaping its key activities, its work habits, and the specificity of its documentary holdings. The academic library in particular mirrors the history of teaching by tracing the changes that have occurred in the educational offering to the point of no longer constituting a generic “information agency.” Each library can therefore be compared to a city that lives on the vestiges of its past, seeking a dynamic balance with its history; it is made up of traditions and heritages comparable to the buildings that over time, and with the changing needs, are by turns demolished, assigned new uses, or incorporated into the urban fabric. 

To make a library’s potential explicit, this cultural heritage is and should be the object of knowledge and enhancement. The collaboration between the Philosophy Library and the PIS group constitutes an example of enhancement tailored to explicit needs expressed by users. 

§ The Form of the Context: The Relationships

The work to create the PIS collection consisted in putting objects in relation with objects to make them converse with the researchers. 

To understand the function of a book, we must also understand that no book constitutes an entity in its own right but is part of a network of relationships both with researchers and with other books. In the library they merge into the global heritage by—hopefully—creating a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. 

It is not only the object itself that sparks impressions in us; the context in which we see it, the relationship with what is close to, behind, and above it, contributes to this experience. The relationships between objects affect the relationships we have with the objects. 

An example of this relationship is the way books are organized in a library: the shelf scheme is a way for the institution to represent itself by showing its own history. If the library is a city, the scheme is its map. At the Philosophy Library this choice dates to its founding in the sixties when, at the impetus of historian of philosophy Mario Dal Pra, logician Corrado Mangione, and historian of philosophical historiography Maria Assunta del Torre, an open shelf system was developed with a design to encourage individual research. The open shelf in the pre-computer world served to build relationships between the objects and to put them in conversation with their users. If you want to know what a colleague is studying, observe where he or she goes in the library. 

Despite its merits, this system has only partially withstood the test of time and has obvious rigidities: for example, books can only be assigned one place; the scheme, although expandable, does not allow for already cataloged items to be easily reassigned; and in general, it was designed to manage a collection that is only paper and significantly smaller than the current one. But in a computer-based environment physical access to documents is no longer the main barrier: what was an obstacle to knowledge in the past has now been overcome; however, new “problems” have emerged. With the ability to process large amounts of data almost instantaneously, computer systems follow specific logics. The decisive factors for a discovery tool consist in the ability to fluidly integrate resources of different natures, providing answers with high precision and recall values, and creating a network of relationships based on the principles of the semantic web. 

§ Exploring Uncharted Territories 

Over the past three decades librarians around the world have developed a wealth of conceptual schemes and reference standards necessary to bring their work practices into a computerized environment. The theoretical principles were already part of the cultural knowledge of our field, but their application has involved delays and resistance. IFLA Library Reference Model is one such conceptual model, interesting here in that it schematizes the needs and functions of users: find, identify, select, obtain, explore. ⁹ Among these the explore function plays an important role. Despite being in an extremely precise and structured document, explore is the least defined of the user functions. The user must be able to navigate by contextualizing and relating resources that are connected by a semantic or logical link, or by unforeseen links. The explore function then makes it possible to understand and make sense of the information. It also recognizes the importance of serendipity in research—a serendipity that, as Elaine Svenonius says, is never an accident in the library field.¹ To facilitate the function, the information system seeks to support discovery by creating explicit relationships (through linked data technology), providing contextual information and navigation features. As we disconnect ourselves from the materiality of the artifacts, multiple paths of enhancement become possible. To take up in a provocative way the definition of interdisciplinarity proposed by Roland Barthes,¹¹ from the point of view of the library the “new object [of research] that does not belong to anyone” belongs to everyone, as an object of interest to the community. 

On a practical level, what has been done with the PIS group represents an attempt to exploit these precepts by exploiting the possibilities afforded us by the institutional discovery tool. If we relate this activity to Ranganathan’s laws, we can see how it ties in with the first four, and in particular the second: “Every reader his or her own book.” As for the fifth law, “the library is a growing organism,” it is involved in this process because it is linked to the acceptance of technical changes in the work of librarians and to the possibilities opened up thanks to the use of information systems. 

In recent years expectations and habits for using the heritage have changed, and consequently, as librarians, we are changing the prospects of cataloging and presenting into a process that allows us to remain reliable interlocutors. 

Innovations are inevitable, so we need to see them as a source of opportunity to create value and remedy the absence of “maps that guide the explorer.”¹² To abide by the spirit of the five laws, libraries and librarians need to make decisions and not get carried away by the changes, so that they can remain active participants in the conversation for knowledge creation. 

§ The Library as Workshop 

The library becomes, in the best cases, a workshop and a common place of research and experimentation, in which everyone makes his or her contribution. The relationship with the contemporaneity of research is tempered by the weight of the past (understood both as tradition and as physicality: for example, in the impossibility of altering the shelf positioning system to accommodate the PIS bibliography). Being in the present of the library means the ability to interpret in an active and dynamic way the needs of our community, by becoming a partner in the “here and now” of the research and of the community. 

Libraries must function as institutions in which culture is produced and transmitted, and not simply “preserved” or “used.” Otherwise, they risk becoming “passive terminals,” forgoing a turn to the future, to investment in knowledge, to growth, and to innovation.¹³

Librarians must put into practice a mediated presentation of the heritage that engages community stakeholders through selected and verified methods and tools, which exempt them from undergoing a disciplinary austerity and instead facilitate their discovery, pleasure of knowing, and intellectual enjoyment.¹ In the best cases, this work of mediation should take place in such a way as to integrate naturally with the actions and needs of the user. 

Only by collaborating and uniting the respective visions of the world will it be possible to give space to a shared future. 

Translated by Samuel Fleck

3 S.R. Ranganathan, The Five Laws of Library Science, Chennai, Madras Library Association, 1931.

4 R.D. Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship,

5 A. Carandini, La forza del contesto, Bari-Roma, Laterza, 2017, p.22.

6 This is how libraries are defined in the Manifesto Unesco sulle biblioteche pubbliche 

7 A. Carandini, La forza del contesto, Bari-Roma, Laterza, 2017, p. 58-59.

10 E. Svenonius, The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization, Boston, MIT Press, 2000.

11 “Interdisciplinary work […] is not a comparison between already established disciplines (none of which is ultimately willing to surrender itself). To do something interdisciplinary, it is not enough to choose a ‘subject’ (a theme) and gather around it two or three fields. Interdisciplinarity is about creating a new object that belongs to no one.” R. Barthes, Giovani ricercatori, in Il brusio della lingua, Turin, Einaudi, 1984, p. 86.

12 L. Crocetti, Memorie generali e memorie specifiche, in “Biblioteche Oggi”, 4 (1999), p. 26.

13 A. Petrucciani, La missione della biblioteca pubblica e l’integrazione dei servizi culturali in Fare sistema, Atti del Convegno 24 ottobre 2008, edited by Luca Rivali, Milan, Edizioni C.U.S.L., 2009, p. 108.

14 F. Sabba, La valorizzazione del patrimonio bibliotecario tra public engagement e public history, in “AIB Studi”, 60, 1(2020).