tisdag 21 december 2010

Document Studies - an alternative "paradigm" in Library and Information Science?

Do we see a shift in focus in Library and Information Science today? Is it possible to speak of the emergence of a new “documentation movement”? Should we speak of Library, Information and documentation studies? Are there “neo-documentalists” within the discipline, changing its pace into something new and exciting? Well, some think so.

Labeling research “movements” is of course difficult, and perhaps not even necessary, but more and more scholars today feel the need to define what is seen as a new kind of research that has emerged during the last six or seven years, and that either explicitly or implicitly is visible as something other than the information behavior centered mainstream of LIS that has dominated research for so long now. What is the perhaps most common denominator in this research is that it puts the “document” in focus of problem statements rather than “information”.

“Information” and “Document” are two of the most fundamental concepts that LIS is building upon, and the study of information/document use is at the core of the discipline together with the organization of information/documents. At first glance it might seem that the two concepts are synonymous, but they are not. It does matter which one is in focus.

To organize documents is quite a different practice from organizing information, and to use documents is something very different from using information. LIS has been so fixed by the “information” concept that it (the concept) has lost most of its meaning and thus become more and more uninteresting to work with; the widespread term “information behaviour” is on the verge of becoming nonsense. In this situation, document research comes in with a fundamentally material foundation for research which gives a whole different set of prerequisites for the formulation of problem statements.

What about the “neo-documentalists”, then? Well, I actually picked this term up from a conversation I overheard at the latest DOCAM conference in Denton, Texas in March 2010. The “neo” in neo-documentalist refers back to late 19th century when Paul Otlet started his bibliographical project. His pivotal Traité de Documentation from 1934, together with for example Susanne Briet’s Qu’est-ce que la documentation? from 1951 formed the basis of the European documentation movement, working with the materiality of the document, trying to solve problems that we since the late 1970’s have been trying to solve with “information” research. The assumed new documentation movement build upon the works of these people, taking it far into the documentary environment of today.

At the beginning of the new century several happenings and publications occurred that would mark not only dissatisfaction with the state of LIS, but also openings of new perspectives that might take us a few steps further in our understanding of our discipline by defining new research problems. One such occurrence was the founding of DOCAM, The Document Academy, in 2003. A central publication was an article, “The social life of documents”, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid published in First Monday in 1996. Another was the publication of Bernd Frohmann’s important book Deflating Information - from Science Studies to Documentation in 2004. There can of course be more titles mentioned, but I hold with these.

DOCAM has now become institutionalized with its annual conferences. Its reputation has grown slowly, and it is today considered to be one of the most original and vital arenas in LIS, with its open doors not only to academia, but also to the arts. Frohmann’s book was perhaps not the first to question the dominating mainstream research in LIS, but it managed to formulate a frustration felt by many in the field over the dominance of a research on information needs seeking and use that rapidly was turning increasingly redundant, but still claiming paradigmatic hegemony. Parallel to this, leading scholarly journal Library Trends published in 2004 a theme issue focusing on “Information and its philosophy” tying the problematic information concept to the fact that LIS is basically a material science building upon documents rather that the abstract “Information”.

What themes then dominate document research today? Well, some of them are

- document use (in daily settings)

- bibliography

- the role of documents in research and scholarly communication

- document architecture

- studies of document based institutions such as libraries, archives and museums

- document genre theory

There are more, but these are all examples of areas where the number of empirical studies are now growing. None of these areas are new, but taken together, they gain a kind of collective significance that they have not yet been acknowledged with. However, if one is to argue for a new line of research, or a new “paradigm”, one has to show where this research takes place and not least important, who does it. This is not always easy, as there is no program, no manifesto, no connecting conferences - DOCAM could perhaps be it, but in order to gain real significance it has to establish a routine for publication of the conference contributions. One way of finding “neo-documentalism” or documentation studies or document studies is of course to go through the literature. No major literature review has yet been made, but there should now be enough works out there to be able to formulate this research as a movement away from the traditional mainstream of LIS. This is not the forum for such a review, but I might well call for one.

It is important to recognize the amount of work that is being done within a “document paradigm”, as we must be able to present it to our students in a comprehensive manner, both on graduate and under graduate levels. It is indeed asked for.

A few interesting references and web pages:

"Document, documentation and the Document Academy", by Niels W. Lund and Michael Buckland, founders of DOCAM, in Archival Science 2009.

Interesting article on Susanne Briet and her contibution to the French documentation movement by UCLA researcher Mary Niles Maak.

French web page on Paul Otlet's Traité de documentation.

Pictures are of Susanne Briet and Paul Otlet

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