torsdag 20 september 2012

When documentation was a threat to libraries – a 20th century tale

Studying the history of the European documentation movement in the early 20th century, one is mostly confronted with just a few names - Otlet, LaFontaine, Briet – whose contributions are mostly seen as individual achievements rather than parts of a general movements of their times. When Otlet and La Fontaine constructed the Universal Decimal Classification and the International Institute of Bibliography in Brussels around the turn of the century, they also defined aspects of a discussion which would engage many and increase in importance in the 1920’s and 30’s.
After these pioneers we find a second generation documentalists, whose work in many cases is more anonymous, but never the less built directly upon the limits and opportunities created by those before them. Among those who took the documentation movement into a more confrontational relation to librarianship was Frits Donker Duyvis of Netherlands Institute for Documentation and Filing (NIDER), and Federation International de Documentation (FID).  His dedicated work covered several areas in documentation and standardization, not seldom related to industrial development. He was also the one who initiated the development of the UDC into what came to be the perhaps finest bibliographical classification system to date.
When the documentation movement became more institutionalized, both with FID, and through the rapid increase of technical and industrial libraries and documentation centers, the library sector felt the need to in some way discuss and position itself to this “sign of the times”. Donker Duyvis was at the centre of events and, like many of his peers, he was deeply engaged in international work within his field. The first time that the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) seriously discussed the issue of documentation was at the annual meeting in Warsaw, June 1936.  The discussion came as a response to an invitation from the International Institute for Documentation, which in its conference in Copenhagen the year before had approached IFLA with the notion that primarily bibliographical issues needed to be dealt with in a new manner.
The reply from IFLA was skeptical. Marcel Godet, head of the Swiss National Library and chair of the Warsaw conference saw documentation in the light of the rapidly changing documentary environment, especially in technical economical and social fields, away from books towards more contingent document forms such as periodicals, bulletins reports and various loose sheets. The bibliographical adaptation needed had de facto already taken place in silence within many academic libraries, but on the international scene there was a need to keep distance between the technology-driven documentalists, and the tradition-laden libraries. Documentation was discussed merely as a sign of the times. Godet however was well known as a broad-minded man, and meant that this did not necessarily have to be a bad thing.
However, the division between librarianship and the documentation movement was to be maintained. In his work and writings Donker Duyvis and other documentalists more or less let librarianship go to focus more on how to handle technical and commercial information, creating standards for both types of documents and their bibliographical representation. Simultaneously in, primarily, national libraries, the need for new technology for bibliographic treatment increased. In Sweden the discussion reached a peak in the mid 1970’s with the first implementation of what would become today’s national union catalogue, LIBRIS.  By this time technology had reached such a level that the issue of documentation versus librarianship was not just a technical or practical issue, but one of identity. Documentation could no longer be discarded as just a sign of the times, but an approach to a cluster of professional identities that were slowly, but steadily merging – librarians and documentalists.
Today we can see this conflict as a tale from the 20th century. The turn of the century symbolically buried the hatches as the rapidly maturing Internet simply erased the differences. To understand the mechanism in the developed relation between librarians and documentalists is still important, however, to be able to make sense of today’s world of dynamic documentation and librarianship.

Some references:

A collection of bibliographical essays on Donker Duyvis and his work is found in

F. Donker Duyvis: his life and work (1964) The Hague:  Netherlands Institute for Documentation and Filing

Donker Duyvis, Frits (1959) "Die Enstehung des Wortes Dokumentation im Namen des FID". Revue de la Documentation, Vol. 26 (1), 15-16.

A thorough account of the Swedish discussion is found in:

Olsson, Lena (1995) Det datoriserade biblioteket: maskindrömmar på 70-talet. Linköping: Linköpings universitet. 

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