Choose Privacy Week 2015: Ranganathan and the Five Blind Librarians

By Eric Hellman

I’ve heard it told that after formulating his famous “Five Laws of Library Science“, the great Indian librarian S. R Ranganathan set about thinking about privacy. Here’s what I remember of the tale.

It turns out that in India at the time, there were five librarians renowned throughout the land for their tremendous organizational skills, formidable bibliographic canny, and the coincidental fact that each of them was blind. It was said that “S” could identify books by their smell. “H” could classify a book just by the sound of the footfalls of a the person carrying it. “T” was famous for leading patrons by the hand to exactly the book they wanted; the feel of a person’s fingernails told him all he needed to know. “P” knew everything there was to know about paper and ink. “C” was quick with her fingers on a keyboard and there was hardly a soul in his city she had not corresponded with. But these 5 were also sought out for their discretion; powerful leaders would consult them, thinking that their blindness made them immune to passing on their secrets of affairs and of state.

So of course, Ranganathan asked the five blind librarians to come to him so he could ask them about privacy. The great librarians began talking as they sat outside Ranganathan’s house.

“On my way through the countryside I encountered a strange beast”, said librarian H. I can’t say what he was, but he had a distinctive call like a horn: Toot-to-to-toooot…” and librarian H recited a complicated sound that must have had at least 64 toots.

“By that sound, I think I encountered the same beast.” said librarian T. “I reached out to touch him. He was hard and smooth, and ended in a point, like a great long sword.”

“No, you are wrong”, said librarian P. I heard the same sound, and the strange beast is like a thick parchment, I could feel the wind when it fluttered.

“You fellows are so mistaken.” said librarian C “You touch for a second and you think you know everything. I spent 15 minutes playing with the beast; she is like a great squirming snake.”

“I know nothing of the beast except by smell,” said librarian S. “But what I do know is that the beast had just eaten a huge feast of bananas.”

At this, a poacher who had been eavesdropping on the five librarians picked up his rifle and ran off.

Just then, Ranganathan emerged through his door. Surprised at seeing the poacher run off, he asked the librarians what they had been talking about.

When librarian S recounted the banana smell, Ranganathan became alarmed. The poacher had run in the direction of a grove of banana trees. Before he could do anything, they heard the sound of a powerful shotgun in the distance, and then the final roar of a dying elephant.

With tears in his eyes, Ranganathan thanked the 5 librarians for their trouble, and sent them home. Though the Ranganathan’s manuscript on privacy has been lost to time, it is said that Ranganathan ‘s 1st law of library privacy was something like this:

“Library Spies Don’t Need Eyes.”

Eric Hellman blogs at where he publishes his own research on how well vendors follow privacy practices.