The Janus face of documentation

Documents are generally agreed to be one of the main foci, in not the main focus, of interest for the information sciences, since the ideas of documentation were first developed by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine. We have recently seen a revival of interest in document theory, through the insights of scholars such as Michael Buckland and Niels Windfeld Lund, and of the members of the Document Academy network.

Outside the world of academic study, there seems to be an interesting dichotomy in new developments around documents.

On the one hand, in the research arena, entirely new forms of documents are on the horizon, brought into being by the convergence of several digital technologies, in particular multi-sensory and pervasive technology. These are typically described as immersive and transmedia documents.

But a second, and seemingly, opposite trend may be seen in public perception and acceptance of documents; a preference for, and reversion to, more traditional forms of document. This exhibits itself in several ways, for example:
• a continued liking for physical books, which has led to reports of a tailing off in the extent of the inroads made by e-books
• the remarkable revival of vinyl records, at the expense of digital music
• a continued usage of camera film, with its traditional dark-room development, in a environment where all photography was thought to have undergone an irrevocable move to digital

We might reasonably see this as an aspect of a general move towards ‘slow information’, and a desire for less complexity in our documentary habits, even when they are digital. Other indicators of this may be:
• the BBC’s promotion of ‘Slow TV’ for a week, following the example of Norwegian television
• colouring books for adults appearing in bestseller lists
• the appearance of ‘minimalist’ software, eschewing the complexity, and proliferation of features, that has grown up around many document-related tasks, such as the single-purpose Hemingwrite digital typewriter, and very simple blogging interfaces such as Medium or Postagon.

These two contrasting developments pose challenges for anyone seeking to understand and promote the best use of documents in a changing environment. We need a better conceptual understanding of documents, and a better understanding of the behaviours and literacies underlying these trends. This is likely to be an important task for the information sciences over the next decade.

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