Today is Ada Lovelace Day and I wanted to join libtechwomen in celebrating the contribution of Suzanne Briet. Briet’s thinking helped found the field of Information Science or Documentation Science as it was known then. Documentation was a field of study started by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine which focused on fixed forms of documents (e.g.) books, newspapers, etc. Briet’s contribution expanded the purview of the study of documents to include the social context in which documents are situated. Or as Ronald Day says
Briet’s writings stressed the importance of cultural forms and social situations and networks in creating and responding to information needs, rather than seeing information needs as inner psychological events. She challenges our common assumptions about the role and activities of information professionals and about the form and nature of documents. She speaks to our age of digital libraries, with their multi-documentary forms, but she also challenges the very conceptual assumptions about the form and the organization of knowledge in such digital libraries. Readers of What Is Documentation? will find themselves returning to Briet’s book, again and again, coming upon ever new insights into current problems and ever new challenges to still current assumptions about documents and libraries and about the origins, designs and uses of information management and its systems.
As you may know from previous blog posts here, I’m kind of fascinated with the idea of how the Document is presented in Web Architecture, and how it influences technologies like Linked Data. I spent some time trying to organize my thoughts about this intersection of Libraries, Archives, Information and the Web in a paper Linking Things on the Web: A Pragmatic Examination of Linked Data for Libraries, Archives and Museums. I was lucky to have Dorothea Salo read an early draft of the paper. Among her many useful comments was one which encouraged me to be a bit more precise in my attribution of the term document in information science. I wasn’t even mentioning Briet’s contribution and instead just named Otlet and La Fontaine, with a citation to Michael Buckland. I cited Buckland’s What Is A Document, which funnily enough is partly responsible for raising awareness about Briet’s contribution. Dorothea rightly encouraged me to dig a bit deeper, and to change this paragraph:
The terminology of documents situates Linked Data amidst an even older discourse concerning the nature of documents (Buckland, 1997), or documentation science more generally. Documentation science is a field a field of inquiry established by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine in the 1930s, which was renamed as information science in the 1960s.
The terminology of documents situates Linked Data amidst an even older discourse concerning the nature of documents (Buckland, 1997), or documentation science more generally. Documentation science, or the study of documents is an entire field of study established by Otlet (1934), continued by Briet (1951), and more recently Levy (2001). As the use of computing technology spread in the 1960s documentation science was largely subsumed by the field of information science. In particular, Briet’s contributions expanded the notion of what is commonly understood to be a document, by reorienting the discussion to be in terms of objects that function as organized physical evidence (e.g. an antelope in the zoo, as opposed to an antelope grazing on the African savanna). The evidentiary nature of documents is a theme that is particularly important in archival studies.
So thanks Dorothea, and thank you Suzanne Briet for grounding what I was finding confounding in Web Architecture. Previously my only exposure to Briet’s thinking was revival literature about her, so I decided to take this opportunity to buy a copy of What Is Documentation to have for my bookshelf. It’s also available online on the Web, which seems fitting, right?