The Zeroth Law of Library Science

CURLY: One thing, just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.
MITCH: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?
CURLY: That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.
City Slickers

One’s core beliefs are never quite the same as other people’s. At the very least, your “pursuit of happiness” may involve far different activities than mine. Even identical twins raised together have varying tastes, after all. So it’s little wonder, for instance, that not every “single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

If I were to map out the kinds of guiding ethical principles, universal maxims, and categorical imperatives which best define how I believe everyone should try to exercise whatever degree of free will we possess, bleeding-heart that I am, the list would go something like this:

  1. Rule One: Act so as to maximize the long-term odds of survival for our species within an increasingly diverse environment which favors a fair society, engages in the pursuit of truth, and protects the free lives of all.
  2. Rule Two: Act to promote the well-being of friends, family, and neighbors, provided it does not conflict with Rule One. (See also the Golden Rule, not treating others as a mere means, using a veil of ignorance, etc.)
  3. Rule Three: Act to maximize your own personal happiness, provided it does not conflict with Rule One or Two.

Science fiction fans will recognize this hierarchical arrangement as being similar to Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” which bear repeating:

  1. First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws were written almost eighty years ago, yet have stood up surprisingly well over the years as a framework for modern artificial intelligence to be built upon. However, in one of his later novels, Asimov added an overarching law which took precedence over all the others:

  • Zeroth Law: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Nobody’s perfect, not to mention how humans aren’t exactly totally rational creatures. In particular, generational or species-level thinking doesn’t always come easily to us. There is perhaps no better example of this than the present situation with climate change, where individuals continue to take actions for their own benefit which hinder our collective chances for continued existence, let alone prosperity.

On to libraries.

Renowned (“father of library science”) librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan coined the Five Laws of Library Science in 1931. They are still taught in library school, or at least they were twenty years ago, and also quoted most often, in my experience, when librarians start quibbling with each other over how to best provide service. They 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. A library is a growing organism.

Variations and updates to these laws have been proposed over the years. “Books” being translated for modern times as “knowledge,” and so on.

These precepts are almost Zen-like in their vagueness. As with the United States Constitution, they say nothing about the right to privacy. There’s nothing explicit about the need for fair pricing, whether or not libraries should be giving out Narcan, or what have you.

Technologies aren’t even mentioned, although the “growing organism” bit can be charitably interpreted as stating that libraries must therefore continually adapt to the changing environment around them. But otherwise, much is open to interpretation when it comes to any specific policies. Thus the continued aforementioned debates in the profession.

Most of my workplace stress is rooted in the sad fact that many librarians are predisposed to view improvements to libraries as a threat to their careers. We should rather be grateful that older, more convoluted methods, even if we’ve found meaning in or tied our livelihoods to them, are being made obsolete. The role of the librarian, it should be noted, does not rank in the top five.

Librarians the world over work with a vast array of formats, publications, subjects, organizational missions, and patrons—all of which determine, hopefully, where their energies are focused. And of course each of us has different experiences and desires that shape those prerogatives as well.

Among several other issues of no discernible direct relation to library services, the American Library Association has passed resolutions on global climate change and fossil fuels. So what business is it of ours if the rain forests might burn down? Plenty, I’d say. What good is a meticulously curated library collection if nobody is around to use it?

For me, the Law Zero for all librarians to follow, just like in every other field, would due to this simple reason be pretty similar to Rule One above. Think of those old buildings which took hundreds of years to complete. A lot of what we should be working towards, and sacrificing to create, we likewise won’t be here to enjoy. It’s an uphill battle. There are unfortunately tremendous opposing forces out there today driven by those who selfishly refuse to accept that you can’t take it with you.

Further Reading




Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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John Hubbard

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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