A Document (Re)turn: Contributions from a Research Field in Transition

Christine Urquhart (Department of Information Studies, Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 7 March 2008




Urquhart, C. (2008), "A Document (Re)turn: Contributions from a Research Field in Transition", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 64 No. 2, pp. 306-308. https://doi.org/10.1108/00220410810858083



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This collection of papers on aspects of documentation theory and practice celebrates the ten‐year anniversary of Documentation Studies at the University of Tromsø, Norway. Many of the papers are based on presentations to the Document Academy Conference, an annual event since 2003 at the School of Information, University of California at Berkeley. Most of the contributions are in English, one is in German and two are in French. The introductory chapter debates the place of documentation – in the humanities or social sciences – and the meaning of document. The chapter discusses some of the assignments set for students on the Tromsø programme, and this leads to reflection on the boundaries of a discipline of documentation, and the focus of interest compared to art history, or literary studies. To what extent is it necessary for the documentalist to understand and apply the means of production, or to understand the many traditions and interpretations that may be associated with any database? The conceptual framework proposed comprises documentation form (a top level classification that is not necessarily directly related to the medium, but indicative of the purpose or inherent properties), document (allowing analysis of the producer, means of production (media), usage of those means (modes/traditions) and the content), and the doceme (a part of the document). This resonates for me with the ideas of object oriented analysis, where the top level term abstract superordinate term (e.g. furniture) conveys ideas around “things to put in the house, to use for domestic purposes”. A table might correspond to the document level, and useful questions can be asked about the maker, how the table was made, the tradition of usage of means (e.g. craftsman, mass production, Shaker style), and what the table is about (e.g. dining, computer desk). The doceme might relate to component parts of a table, noting that the top board can be another middle level item (our children's art table had been a door, for example). Drucker, in another chapter, discusses some of difficulties of deciding how to deal with what is embedded, added, annotated, or even encrypted. The part/whole relationship is complicated by the entanglements entailed in interpretation.

Other chapters in this section of theory reflect the need to consider the “mind plus matter” in a document, such as inscriptions on pots, in pictures. Frohman discusses the idea of documentary agency – what documents do, rather than what they mean (and similarly the debate over the dangers of certain horror films for children). Ørom compares the concept of information versus the concept of documentation, returning to the work of Paul Otlet, and arguing that other commentators have leapt too quickly to criticize the positivistic approach apparently propounded by Otlet for documentation “science”.

The next section of the book deals more with the study of the means and usage of those means. Barlindhaug explains how digital technology is a tool, and compares musicians' views and usage of analogue synthesisers, and reasons why musicians returned to using the old tools, rejecting digital synthesisers (despite the apparent advantages) for some recording purposes. A contribution by Olsen et al. discusses the meaning, usages, and composition of the medical record – no wonder that it is so hard to computerise patient record systems when the document is complex, needs to be read by different audiences at different levels, and requires to be fragmented for some purposes, and aggregated for others. Francke compares two journals in their approach to negotiating cognitive authority, an interesting approach with the open peer review approach adopted by some journals, and different approaches taken by some e‐book publishers on the functionality that they offer readers that mimics or builds on what they presume readers do with books. Remediation, the process of positioning and repositioning that occurs as, for example, digital media challenge print media, may depend on the intended audiences and their perceptions of what makes the document trustworthy. Skare, similarly, discusses the texts and parallel texts in the German book, which was made into a film The Living Room Fountain, a comic satire on the problems of reunification for East and West Germany. Skare points out that the film of the book may seem to become the book of the film with so many other materials published together with the film – the posters, interviews, to name a few.

Three very disparate contributions comprise the section on document design and aesthetics. The first is a scientific approach to organising (in effect choreographing) light knowledge, the second examines approaches to developing and evaluating complex document sharing spaces such as the FXPAL systems. I can see the advantages of a cohesive multimedia corporate memory, but on the other hand, who among us has not thought carefully about what to record, or “skim over” in some meeting notes? Choksy takes a different approach in examining what has to be recorded for societal purposes in the form of written contracts.

The fourth section examines document analysis. Bootz and Hauthbois examine time measures for audiovisual and multimedia documents, Anderson et al discuss suitable ontologies for film documents (what are the equivalent of “words” for film documents? Suominen analyses the domain taking a faceted classification approach. I should have been able to follow this but my entry point is the cognitive psychology of classification, and object oriented analysis, and these interfere too much to be able to make any useful comment, unfortunately. Broudoux examines changes in authority assignation on the internet, and in Web 2.0, and Zacklad examines frameworks for analysing network transactions, providing a different way of looking at the work of creating new publications, new documents, when so much is now possible in information production in the public sphere on the web. Vårheim examines the role of public policy in promoting and supporting the IT industry, with emphasis on the Norwegian experience. Last but not least in this section, Day discusses the contribution of Suzanne Briet, concentrating on her ideas around culture, and the argument that documentation is not just a cultural technique, but that documentation is a necessary part of the process of modern cultural development. Michael Buckland provides the epilogue. In reflecting on the Dokvit programme in Tromsø, he argues that a systematic approach to studying the process of documentation and its outcomes allowed consideration of meaning, but in a different way to approaches adopted in many departments of media and cultural studies. Documentalists need to understand technologies, and “the history of the book and the printing press” is simply insufficient. User studies need to be broadened to embrace the socio‐economic studies – an argument perhaps that records management and information management could ask useful questions of each other's approaches, assumptions, and genres. This chapter could, for me, have more usefully been put at the beginning of the book, after the introduction, as an introduction to the content of the book itself. That leaves, of course, a space for a concluding chapter that might have discussed future directions or the changes that have been made over the ten years of the programme.

Like most collected works, much is demanded of the reader, and this book might have benefited from much stronger editorial comment on the chapters, to demonstrate the links and note the debates. There were many ideas that I will follow up, and authors whose writings I realise I should revisit for some insights on how documentation and documentary approaches could enrich the librarianship, information and records management, and archival science curricula. For a reflection of ten years of teaching at Tromsø, I would also have liked some information on the students” perspective – what were their reactions, why did they choose this programme and what type of work have they done since? A rudely practical suggestion perhaps, but many department heads would require such evidence before implementing some of the interesting ideas presented in this collection.

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