Monday, February 14, 2005

Novum documentum : materiality and situatedness

I’ve been nibbling around the edges of the novum documentum, that new cannon of work emerging from the neo-documentalists. Inspired by Otlet and Briet, a number of researchers have returned to the document as the primary object of study in LIS. Since I’ve hitched my research to this work, I should probably develop some mastery of it. My intention is to review some of the recent work of Frohmann, my Virgil as I launch myself into self-imposed documentalist exile. But first, I want to make a stop at the Document Academy ( and a recent paper.

This past year Bringay, Barry, and Charlet presented a paper called Annotations: A new type of document in the Electronic Health Record (2004). While their paper certainly describes a new type of document—the annotation—it is a bit weak on rigor. I wish that they had cited more sociological monographs and fewer conference proceedings. Their background research should be expanded in two particular directions. First, I found their analysis very light in terms of the function of annotations. The authors spill considerably ink describing annotations and informing the reader of the ways that annotations can be manipulated yet they fail to describe exactly why these things exist or what they do. Some consideration of Jackson’s (2001) work on marginalia could expand their discussion considerably (see Note 1). The second lack stems from their situational agnosticism. Again, the authors describe what they can do with the annotations but give us little background of where these particular documents live. This oversight is tragic since this particular environment has been thoroughly addressed by the workplace studies researchers Paul Huff and Christian Heath in proceedings, journal articles, and monographs (Heath, Knoblauch, & Luff, 2000; Heath & Luff, 2000; Luff & Heath, 1998; Luff, Hindmarsh, & Heath, 2000).

The work of Bringay, Barry, and Charlet has left me feeling under-whelmed; however, it has also provided me with some very valuable negative knowledge; I know what any approach to documentation should include: attention to what documents actually do, and some detail related to the environment within which the documents are situated.

In his most recent writing, Frohmann specifically addresses these concerns (Frohmann, 2004a, 2004b). By collapsing the concept of “information” in a Wittgensteinian manner, he returns to the primacy of the document and documentary practices. In a recent article in Library Trends Frohmann provides a list of the crucial features of documents: “their materiality, their institutional sites; the ways in which they are socially disciplined; and their historical contingency.” (pg. 387) In a recent paper presented at DOCAM 2004, he amends this list and presents a new focus for the novum documentum: “the materiality of documents and writing, and the non-authorial nature of many of these document types, and an analytical emphasis on what documents do, rather than what they signify, express, or represent.” (pg. 1) Frohmann expresses the need to address those features that were so overtly missing from the work of Bringay, Barry, and Charlet. I intend to address explicate two of these features: materiality, and situatedness.


Documents are material, they are situated in practice, and they do something. These concepts are most evident in the writings of the aforementioned workplace researchers like Luff and Heath who have explored documents such as the tapes used by air traffic controllers, health records used by doctors, and the forms and drawings used by the personnel on a construction site (also see Plowman, Rogers, & Ramage, 1995). Another approach is activity theory, whose strongest current proponent is probably Engeström. Based on Marxist philosophy and developed in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s, activity theory focuses on the role mediating objects within subject/object relationships. The object is inherently material. A third body of literature that seems to resonate with the concept of materiality explores the role of documents within organizations. Preda (2002), for example, notes that particular documents such as the minutes from meetings become negotiated objects within a certain context. Indeed, the final version of the minutes may bear little resemblance to what actually was discussed at the meeting. The document therefore becomes a crucial input into the company’s perception of reality. In this case, it could be argued that the materiality of the document is not as important as the information described by the markings on the document, but Mambrey and Robinson (1997) provide another perspective. They followed a speech written for a bureaucrat through a government organization, from initial request to ultimate rejection—in a manner that resonates with current theories of physical anthropology such as Chaîne Opératoire (Dobres, 2000). They note that the material status of many of the documents within the organization is highly variable and often questioned. For example, an undocumented phone call is neither information nor document:

“This artefact is a 'nonexisting nothing': it is simply not part of the work-flow. A civil servant may work with the information but the document does not exist.” (pg. 121)

From these three types of studies it seems that the materiality of documents is somehow bound-up with ontological status. And ontological status is necessarily a function of the socio-historical context of the institution within which the document is situated. Returning to my preferred medium of study—visual representations—there is a great deal of work on how the ontological status of images, particularly scientific images, is established. From this work it appears that there are actually two approaches to ontological status: internal and external. Abstract renderings may be very important and very real for scientists or technicians who are well versed in their use (Knorrcetina & Amann, 1990). To appeal to a wider audience outside of their own discipline, however, these same individuals may adopt an empirical approach and attempt to create photo-realistic images that represent phenomena in the way that they may appear to the casual observer. This trend is certainly evident in architectural and technical drawings. While both engineers and architects may prefer combined projected views—indeed, the Beaux-Arts training of architects used only combined views (Pai, 2002)—architects use full perspective renderings for clients, while the technical illustration of manuals is generally executed in isometric or oblique perspective. But perhaps I’m beginning to conflate “information” with “document”.

Frohmann (2004) demonstrates a strict reading of the materiality of documents in his exploration of posies and embroidered clothes. I have a few concerns with this approach largely due to the underlying nature of the objects. Any object—document or otherwise—presents a number of different affordances to a potential user; for example, a framing hammer can be used for its intended purpose of driving nails but it’s equally useful for propping a door open. Similarly, a document may adopt different uses. The Bible for example, can be used as a reader, or it can insight the masses to riot, or it can be used to prevent atheists from committing perjury in the court of law. A more interesting example of the various affordances of documents comes from antiquity. Petroski (1990) describes the exploits of a young student who used his pugilare—wood framed wax codex—to bash in the skull of his instructor. While the materiality of the document certainly afforded this action, this interpretation may be outside of the constraints of materiality that we attempting to apply.

While I certainly haven’t come to any grand conclusions regarding the materiality of documents, I can see the value of the concept. It clearly demonstrates the limitation of two quite popular theories for information use. Star and Greisemer (Star & Griesemer, 1999 [1989]) articulate the concept of the boundary object, a something used in the process of interessement within heterogeneous networks. They base their discussion in the interaction of naturalists and other individuals to collect specimens for a museum. When they describe actual documents e.g., cards annotated to reflect the location where a specimen was found, their argument is very strong. However, when they drift to other types of boundary objects such as those shared conceptual categories such as borders and boundaries, I feel their argument becomes considerably weaker. After all, those boundaries aren’t just cognitive structures but have become reified in some sort of documentary form such as a map or a treaty. A similar shortcoming is evident in the work of Yates and Orlikowski (1992) and their conceptualization of the genre. Essentially, they extend the boundary object and its affordances into the organization and describe its role in structuration (Giddens, 1984). Although basing their argument in material documents such as memos and annual reports, they then also throw in non-material genres such as the meeting. This combination of material and non-material seems to also conflate the practical and discursive consciousness that underlies structuration.

So where does this leave me? I’m still striving to operationalize materiality in some way for my own stated purpose of studying handbooks and technical representations. I could easily compile a narrative history but I would prefer to formulate a dialectic one. But what dialectic exists within this analysis? Let’s start with the test case of the Theatrum Machinarum. I can start with three premises based on the above ramblings: 1. The document was a crucial element in actual practice (although I suspect that the practice may not be the technical one we imagine!); 2. The ontological status of the documents was debated on different levels both within and without the primary interpretive community; and 3. The documents were put to radically different uses than the authors imagined but perhaps not as dramatic as homicide.


[to come… Downhill parking: if situated in practice, does the document have a performative


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