Friday, September 03, 2004


Perhaps at this stage in our quest we can begin to discuss documents—the sine qua non of both information science and the notion of knowledge artefacts. To define documents, let’s begin with documentation:

“Documentation was a set of techniques developed to manage significant (or potentially significant) documents, meaning, in practice, printed texts. But there was (and is) no theoretical reason why documentation should be limited to texts, let alone printed texts.” (Buckland, 1997)

Within this description of documentation, Buckland implies that documents can extend beyond just texts and can include other types of artefacts or tools. Buckland summarized the insights of a variety of different commentators such as Paul Otlet:

“Graphic and written records are representations of ideas or of objects, he wrote, but the objects themselves can be regarded as ‘documents’ if you are informed by observation of them.”

He then cites Suzanne Briet:

“A document is ‘any physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded, intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon.”

Buckland then goes on to provide a variety of different criteria inferred from the writings of Otlet and particularly Briet. Documents require materiality (“physical objects and physical signs only”), intentionality (“It is intended that the object be treated as evidence”), objects must be processed (“They have to be made into documents”), and there must be a phenomenological position (“The object must be perceived to be a document”).

In the first three criteria, Buckland’s definition of a document resonates with our discussion of artefacts and tools i.e., that they must be physical and they must be produced through the talents of homo faber. In his final criteria, we also witness a hint of Heidegger and the idea that for objects to support being they must be a part of being through their position “at-hand”. A consideration missing from Buckland’s criteria is the notion of markings. To act as one of Briet’s recorded and symbolic signs, documents must have some sort of marking to separate them from mere biofacts. For an artefact to carry meaning, there must clearly be some cognitive distinction between the material of the object and the markings it contains.

Buckland’s discussion approaches a question that was apparently quite heated at one point of whether or not an antelope could be a document. According to Briet, it could be provided that it was an object of study within a controlled environment such as a zoo. In this discussion, the concepts of materiality and markings are relegated in deference to the importance of institutional setting. While I find myself in disagreement with Briet about the documentary potential of an antelope primarily due to its lack of human made markings, her introduction of the institution is quite important in determining what a document is or isn’t.

There are certain artefacts that could, perhaps, be considered documents because of their informative role yet contain neither text nor markings. Some example of these types of documents include the knotted khipus used by the Incan empire to maintain financial accounts, the mysterious wicker star maps of ancient Polynesian navigators, and the templates and geometrical devices of the medieaval stone masons that built that era’s cathedrals. As David Turnbull (2000) notes, each of these types of documents were given significance not by the marking on their surface but rather by the entrenched social systems that led to their creation and use. While they all act as documents and knowledge artefacts, the nature of the knowledge they convey becomes a matter of interest:

“Knowledge is necessarily a social product; it is the messy, contingent, and situated outcome or group activity.” (215)

The importance of this social environment will become apparent as we shift our focus to specific social notions of documents and knowledge artefacts such as the concepts of “inscription”, “genre”, and “boundary object”. In this collision between social environment and document we find a repudiation of the concerns of certain workplace studies researchers that “sociology, in general, has tended to disregard the artefact” (Heath, Knoblauch, & Luff, 2000, 302):

“As Weber and others demonstrate the document is central to the emergence of the modern organization from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and is the artefact, par excellence, which has been transformed by digital technology. Curiously, however, we have relatively little understanding of the ways in which documents are assembled, read, and exchanged within the developing course of practice activities; still less of the ways in which these documents feature in interaction and collaboration within organizational environments.” (302)

While Heath, Knoblauch, and Luff’s arguments are clearly applicable to workplace documentary artefacts such as the mason’s template or the Incan’s khipu, things start to get a bit murky when we consider our modern notion of documents as things with markings. In this case, not only the material manifestation of the artefact needs to be read but the markings themselves need to be read and interpreted. Both of these interpretations are subject to both individual cognitive factors and issues of social construction. Furthermore, the objects aren’t just inert bricks. The documents themselves become a material for new derivative forms of communication such as the glosses, marginalia, and footnotes of manuscripts and texts (Jackson, 2001), to the redlines of engineering drawings (Bechky, 2003). Ordinary artefacts may also attain the status of documents through the application of markings as indicated by the common design expressions “back of the envelope” and “back of the cigarette box”. These naïve and incomplete types of documents may have just as much significance as their carefully drawn and mass-produced descendents:

“The first design on the back of the cigarette box or the envelope is not necessarily inferior. Indeed, for the experienced engineer, the initial design set down will be he distillation of years of direct and inherited experience and the considered, though quick, choice from among the many alternatives that may have flashed through the mind as swiftly as the alternative configurations for his body flashed through the mind of Theodore Cooper as he fell toward the Mississippi.” (Petroski, 1997, 52)

As with all documents within a social context, these documents may fulfill an important role within a particular community by exerting some sort of influence (see discussion in Fox, 2000). Documents are more than just inert material.

I’ll append one more quotation simply because we seem to be at a place where it can be introduced:

“The issue of documents as instruments of power and control is an important one. Much debate around this issue, however, tends to argue that document technologies determine certain social processes -- either for good or for ill. So, for example, theorists of literacy such as Walter Ong, Marshall MacLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Jack Goody, and Richard Lanham, have painted the onset of democracy and the rise of individual freedom as the inevitable and unavoidable outcome of the spread of printing or information technology. From a profoundly different perspective, Weberians, Chandlerians, and Foucauldians have linked documentary technology to the rise of social control and the increasing spread of bureaucratic-institutional power and repression.” (Brown & Duguid, 1995)


Bechky, B. A. (2003). Object lessons: Workplace artifacts as representations of occupational jurisdiction. American Journal of Sociology, 109(3), 720-752.
Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1995). The Social Life of Documents. Xerox PARC. Retrieved January 12, 2002, from
Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a "document"? Retrieved September 18, 2001, from
Fox, S. (2000). Communities of practice, Foucault and actor-network theory. Journal of Management Studies, 37(6), 853-867.
Heath, C., Knoblauch, H., & Luff, P. (2000). Technology and social interaction: the emergence of 'workplace studies'. British Journal of Sociology, 51(2), 299-320.
Jackson, H. J. (2001). Marginalia : readers writing in books. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Petroski, H. (1997). Remaking the world : adventures in engineering. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Turnbull, D. (2000). Masons, tricksters, and cartographers : comparative studies in the sociology of scientific and indeigenous knowledge. Australia: Harwood Academic.


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