Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Can an antelope be a document?

This is a nerdy, librarian-type post. Consider yourself warned. ::grin::

Suzanne Briet, one of the founding presences behind modern day imformation studies programs, once posed the question, "Can an antelope be a document?" in her article/pamphlet called What is Documentation?. I won't go into all the gory details, but that argument has stayed with me since I read it at FSU. She is essentially stating that a document is evidence in support of a fact. Paul Otlet, writing slightly before Briet, said that you can have information (documentation) about objects, but the objects themselves become documents if you are informed by observing them. So... if you have a map, can it be a document? (Yes.) If you have a photograph can it be a document? (Definitely.) If you have a dinosaur bone, is that a document... does that inform us? (Yes, ask any museum curator!) Well, if a dinosaur bone is a document, can an animal in a zoo, say... an antelope.. be one? (If the zoo = the museum, then doesn't the antelope = the dinosaur bone?) If you're really interested in this, I recommend Michael Buckland's treatment of the argument here which he calls "information-as-thing."

I find this incredibly intriguing, and for 1951, it was amazingly farsighted. We catalog things now that don't even exist in the real "brick and mortar" world - electronic resources and video and all kinds of stuff. And we do that because we are informed by these bits and bytes that flash across our computer screen. So I was deeply reminded of Otlet and Briet's arguments when I saw this story on Wired's website: Browse the Artifacts of Geek History. There are books, of course, but they're covered in precious gems. And there's a Sputnik rocket. Dinosaur skeletons. An Enigma machine. Escher-like woodwork. A hand-painted book on dwarves, embellished with gold and silver. I could spend weeks in this library and never be bored!

But it got me thinking. In the library field, they're known as "realia." Which is quite a dry and dusty term for all these amazing objects that you can see and touch and manipulate. For Briet and Otlet, these items speak for themselves. We can have - and should have - books and papers telling us about each one (and many in this collection have just that!) I can read all about the Soviet Sputnik program, and how the Germans used the Enigma machine to send coded messages to their submarines in World War II. I can look at books of anatomy and physiology about dinosaurs and human brains. I can even read a book about rare books (doesn't that seem like a contradiction?), hand painted and studded with jewels. But all of those resources - however valuable - simply pales in comparison to being in a place where you can touch a skeleton. And hold a meteorite. And tap a code into a machine. And feel the rubies and brush strokes of a 16th century book on jousting.

What does that say about me? I'm not really sure, but I think I'd prefer antelopes to electrons any day!

1 comment:

Gratia Domini said...

*grin* Yeah, well, I tried..."Sooner Schooner"'s not difficult to translate, but I think my English students had a bit of trouble with the idea of polls, and the 96th week all-time in the end I told them to leave it at the fact that I was happy. ;)But there's still a lot to play before January!

I'm hoping I can buy access to the games online for October.

And I remember the antelope document thing too...must be impression-forming.