Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Types of Documents

I'm sitting in my living room with my infant son playing at my feet. He's lying at his feet gazing quite intently at the little plush monsters dangling inches from his nose. Since he seems to have no intention of sleeping, either do I.

This little respite from a long day of working and kid-sitting gives me a chance to ponder the mysteries of documents. I'm particularly intent on articulating the differences between three different families of documents.

Working documents. The first kind of documents are familiar to us all. Working documents act as direct inputs into our daily professional processes. They have been studied from a number of different academic vantage points such as "workplace studies" or "Activity Theory." These studies have by-and-large explored the impact of little bits of paper as they flow through a professional or scholastic setting. On the scholastic side, printouts from automated apparatus and laboratory workbooks have been targeted. Meanwhile, the prospects of professional settings have been augured by casting the entrails of engineering drawings, medical records, and air-traffic control strips. The purpose of working is to assist scholars and professionals in their daily practices. They are direct inputs into the process of getting work done.

Epistemo-documents. Outside of working documents are epistemological documents that seek to establish truth within a particular community or social group. The most obvious example of an epistemological document is the scientific paper. Through a formalized process of production and publication, a scientific paper establishes some concept as being more established, credible, or believable than some other concept. As described by Latour and Fleck, epistemo-documents live in an ecosystem of related documents. The most robust works are reified through citation by other authors and become part of the cannon of a discipline. Their longevity is assured by placement on course lists and inclusion in collections and textbooks.

Techne-documents. Another type of document--and the type that most interests me--are techne-documents. They are not about truth, nor are they a direct input into the working process. Instead, they are intended to assist craftsmen and professional with getting things done. The best example of a techne-document is the type of technical handbook used by engineers. It is typically filled with diagrams, tables, formulae, and charts. The primary purpose of these works is not to establish some flavour of truth or to enable an individual to create a specific artifact. Instead, these works serve as inputs for the production of generic classes of artifacts. An architect, for example, may document her design for a building with various plans and elevations (working documents). The process of actually creating those designs, however, will require consultation with a number of different techne-documents. She may have to refer to various handbooks on concrete or steel construction, roof design, or general treatises such as Architectural Graphic Standards. Each of these techne-documents, in turn, may use information published in epistemo-documents. A handbook on concrete construction contains data based on the results of published laboratory experiments. The architect, however, doesn't care where the source material for the works derived from; She only cares about designing a building.

Working documents and epistemo-documents have been thoroughly studied. The epistemo-document, however, is an elusive beast. It's very ubiquity within professional practices make it a difficult subject of study. Technical handbooks, for example, are quickly culled from collections as their currency wanes, frustrating the possibility of conducting longitudinal studies. Similarly, users of epistemo-documents find it difficult to describe their relationship with these documents.

The pedestrian nature of epistemo-documents becomes most evident in the literature on the information behaviour of engineers. These studies repeatedly find that engineers prefer handbooks to journals and, in general, that they use the most readily available information sources such as internal reports and the opinion and experience of colleagues. Despite the predominance of these works in the practices of scientists and engineers, they remain understudied in broader LIS discourse. For example, in their textbook on reference sources Bopp and Smith (2001) provide only three terse lines on handbooks and their brethren:

“Almanacs, yearbooks, and handbooks provide concise factual information about current and historical events; organizations, people, places, and things; and statistical trends. The information available in these tools is almost always available in other sources.” (Pg. 357)

The problem is how to actually conduct such a study.

[NOTE: I'm hesitant to break down the word "document." The doceo- part is easy enough. From the Latin, it signifies some sort of warning. The "-mentum" suffix is a bit more troubling. In some usages, mentum means chin. In other usages, it signifies part of the labium of insects. Still more dangerous is "mentula." Marston's Dutch Courtezan (1605) provides some context: "A plump rumpt wench, with a breast Softer then... an old man's mentula." Urquhart's translation of Rabelais's Works (1653) is also quite informative: "Drawing out his mentul into the open aire, he so bitterly all-to-bepist them." More recently, R.F. Burton found the term quite useful. In his 1885 translation of Arabian Nights' Entertainment he writes "Man's mentule one knows by the length of his nose." His 1888 translation of Priapeia states: "The stupid mentule does not rise to a sufficient lenght nor stand well enough." Finally, Weaver's 1989 translation of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum notes: "Our poor globe, instead of having an ithyphallic crown pointing upward, would have found itself with a sterile appendix, a limp mentula."

What great words: bepist, mentule, and ipthyphallic. I have to work them into conversation. I love the OED!]