Death of the document?

With not even a soupçon of the quagmire I was entering, I recently looked up the definition of ‘document’. In case you didn’t know, the glib dictionary definitions hide a debate that has, well, not exactly raged, but rather limped on for nearly twenty years now. I don’t know, but I guess that it was the arrival of the digital ‘document’ with the first word processors in the early 1980s which sparked it in the first place.

It turns out that there’s no one definition of ‘document’ that everyone’s happy with. We can all agree what a cup is, or a bus, but not, it seems, a ‘document’. And to cap it all, a recent paper in the Journal of Documentation (Frohmann, Berndt. Revisiting “what is a document?”, JDoc 65(2), 2009) tells us that we shouldn’t bother anyway. Shame, I’d been planning to investigate where the ‘document’ stands in the light of Web 2.0, much as Steve Bailey and James Lappin are doing for records. And then what happens? Google announces the death of the document.

How so? Well, instinctively, we humans don’t welcome change. We are ruled by nostalgia – or rather, inertia. Come any new technology, we always try to replicate the old model within it, failing to see that it offers scope for completely new ways of doing things. Web 2.0 is just the catch-all term for a number of such new ways – new models of communication and interaction – Blogs, Wikis, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and now, Google Wave. All of them are document-agnostic.

via: KOnnect

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3 comments on “Death of the document?
  1. Amanda Clarke says:

    The word document does sound rather “magna carta-ish” doesn’t it? Perhaps it is time for a change.


  2. Rob Hudson says:

    As we discussed a bit in class last week, I think we’re in the midst of a shift in paradigm regarding not only our definitions of things like “document,” but also our entire system of knowledge organization (an absolutely unoriginal observation, but I suppose that’s how it happens when you personally wake up to a new concept!).

    I don’t know if we’ve reached the tipping point yet (where we discard the old paradigm and embrace the new one); the shifting nature of the discussion suggests we haven’t. At least for me personally, it’s useful to go back and remind myself of previous models and long-standing definitions in order to develop and understand any new ones that are emerging. After all, as the Levy reading for this week shows (and as we’ve discussed with the origins of the Internet itself as a platform for sharing academic papers), the new order is built on the old. I found it interesting to note not only how much has changed since 1995 (anybody remember Mosaic? And Google was probably not yet even a glimmer in the imaginations of Larry Page and Sergey Brin), but what hasn’t (we’re still struggling with how to catalog the digital world).


  3. Clair Hall says:

    I dont know if this is relevant to the discussion but building on the old ways of doing things isnt just a way for humans hold on to the past due to nostalgia. We take what we have always known to work best and try applying it to new models because it is an efficient way to process out techniques that do not work. We start with what we know and go from there. The problems arise when we do not move past the familiar when it isnt working as best it could.


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by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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