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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Documentation, Volume 71, Issue 2.
Documents and people, Otlet and Heidegger: Ron Day's Indexing it All
The significance and continuing influence of the documentation movement of the early twentieth century has become increasing commented upon in recent years (see e.g. Wright, 2014). A new book by Ronald Day (2014), part of MIT's History and Foundations of Information Science series, continues this trend.
It takes an explicitly philosophical perspective, stating an intention to give “a critical epistemic-historical account of the development of the modern documentary tradition and its mode of governmentality in the twentieth century and now in the twenty-first [and] an intellectual history of the modern role of documentary indexing” (pp. ix-x).
The book is divided into five main sections, completed by an introduction and conclusion. Putting it over-simplistically, these deal respectively with the relation between persons and texts, with indexing �" particularly citation indexing �" and “aboutness”, with the effects of social media and social networking on documents and indexing, with the nature of the person �" and the intelligent android �" as a document, and with the influence of big data and big information.
The first section, considering the relations between persons and texts, and taking Paul Otlet and Martin Heidegger as representatives of two distinct viewpoints, may be of most interest to the readers of Journal of Documentation. Otlet is taken as personifying the view of documents as containers of information, used to provide facts to meet specific information needs, while Heidegger personifies a view of documents as providing subjective understanding through a personal relation between book and reader: information retrieval and fact checking vs close reading and hermeneutics.
The second section focusing on indexing and “aboutness”, also presents dichotomy, personified this time by the traditions of Otlet and of Charles Ammi Cutter. The former sees information as an abstract quantity, to be found in documents to satisfy an information need; the latter sees information and documents as essentially synonymous. The conflicted nature of library and information science, unsure as to whether it is really dealing with information or with documents, is well illustrated.
The book is very rich in perspectives on people, documents, the relations between them, and the extent to which their natures overlap; all treated with a rigour which is not always to be found in the LIS literature. Although one may not always accept the author's conclusions, it is hard to quibble with a general theme; that the move from a close reading of a small number of documentary sources to a skimming through sets of “big information” has happened by technological default, and with little critical reflection or analysis.
The coverage is generally thorough and balanced, and the discussion of the main authors of the documentary tradition �" Otlet, Brier, Buckland, Lund �" is matched by that of a set of philosophers and commentators less familiar in the library/information disciplines. The literature citations are selective rather than comprehensive �" according nicely, whether by accident or design, with a close reading/skimming discussion. It would have been nice to see some mention of the work of other authors on these topics, but some of the most relevant work will have appeared too late for considerations (e.g. Floridi, 2014; Poirier and Robinson, 2014; Whitworth, 2014).
In an age when those who wrote articles now blog, those who blogged now tweet, and those who tweeted simply post a photograph to Instagram, this thought-provoking book is a well-argued plea for critical reflection on the changing nature of documents, particularly through the lens of critical theory. It can be recommended to all readers of Journal of Documentation.
Day, R.E. (2014), Indexing it All: the Subject in the Age of Documentation, Information and Data, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
Floridi, L. (2014), The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Poirier, L. and Robinson, L. (2014), “Informational balance: slow principles in the theory and practice of information behaviour”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 70 No. 4, pp. 687-707
Whitworth, A. (2014), Radical Information Literacy: Reclaiming the Political Heart of the IL Movement, Chandos, Oxford
Wright, A. (2014), Cataloguing the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, Oxford University Press, New York, NY