Draft of Buckland, Michael. The centenary of "Madame Documentation": Suzanne Briet, 1894-1989. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 46, no. 3 (April 1995): 235-237, published for the American Society for Information Science by Wiley and available online to ASIS members and other registered users at http://www.interscience.wiley.com/. This text may vary from the published version A French version was published as "Le centenaire de "Madame Documentation": Suzanne Briet, 1894-1989." Documentaliste: Sciences de l'information, 32, no. 3, 179-181, 1995.

Centenary of "Madame Documentation": Suzanne Briet, 1894-1994.

Michael Buckland
School of Information Management and Systems,
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-4600

Abstract: A biographical account of Suzanne Briet, 1894-1989, librarian, documentalist, historian, and feminist. One of the first few women appointed as librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Briet was a leader in the development of Documentation in the 1930s and until she retired in 1954. Her manifesto, Qu'est-ce que la documentation? (Paris, 1951), remains significant for information science theory.

Last year was the centenary of the birth, on February 1, 1894 in France, of Renée-Marie-Helène-Suzanne Briet, a significant pioneer of information science in the days when it was called documentation. She was known for a while under her married name Suzanne Dupuy (or Dupuy-Briet).

Briet qualified as a secondary school teacher of English and History, but after teaching in Annaba, Algeria, from 1917 to 1920, she became a librarian. Qualifying in 1924, she was one of the first three women appointed as professional librarians in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The feminization of librarianship occurred later in France than in the USA, essentially between the two World Wars. In addition, many new ideas were being introduced at that time, some influenced by North American practice and encouraged by the Paris Library School that operated, under American Library Association sponsorship, from 1923 to 1929. It must have been an exciting and interesting situation in spite of the political and economic difficulties and, later, World War II. (See Maack, 1983; Delmas, 1992; Documentaliste, 1993; Richards, 1992).

Briet's main professional achievement at the Bibliothèque Nationale was symbolic of her interest in service and modernization: She planned, established, and supervised from 1934 to 1954 the Salle des Catalogues et Bibliographies, which was created by remodelling a basement (Cain, 1936, photos on pp. 33-34). Bibliographies, which had previously been kept in closed stacks, she made available. She organized supplementary indexing and developed a bibliographic advisory service. [Photograph in published version.] The cross of the Legion of Honor was conferred on her in this room in 1950.

From the late 1920s onwards Briet was active nationally and internationally in the development of what was then called Documentation but would now be called Information Science. She participated in the founding, in1931, and in the subsequent leadership of the Union Française des Organismes de Documentation (UFOD), the French analog of Aslib in the United Kingdom and of the American Documentation Institute (founded in 1937 and now called the American Society for Information Science and Technology) in the USA. She was a leader in developing professional education for this new speciality. She developed (and UFOD adopted) a plan for what would have been the first school of Documentation / Information Science anywhere in the world, had it been established. When, in 1951, such a school was established, the Institut National de Techniques de Documentation, Briet was the founding Director of Studies (Delmas, 1993). She became Vice President of the International Federation for Documentation (FID) and acquired the nickname "Madame Documentation."

In 1951 Briet published a remarkable manifesto on the nature of Documentation: Qu'est-ce que la documentation? (Briet 1951). It is a booklet of 48 pages. Part I, developing a distinct theme of French documentation, sought to push the boundaries of the field beyond texts to include any material form of physical evidence. ("Is a living animal a document?" she asked.) Part II argued that a new and distinct profession was emerging. Part III urged the societal need for new and active information services. This tract may seem at first to be enthusiastic hyperbole, but Part I remains significant because it is still a challenge to orthodox views concerning the scope of information science (Buckland, 1991). A Spanish edition appeared in 1960 but it has not appeared in English and it has hardly ever been mentioned in the English-language literature. Verner Clapp (1952) wrote a perceptive review. Jesse Shera disparaged (and seems not to have understood) her ideas (e.g., Shera, 1966). It is in contrast with Pierce Butler's manifesto Introduction to library science (1933) which is so readable, so empty of content, and so widely cited.

Briet toured the United States with Fulbright support in 1951-52, examining bibliographic services, reference service, and professional education. She concluded that Americans achieved excellence in documentation although few were familiar with that term. Briet recognized that, on account of the vigor of the special libraries movement in the United States, what might have been called a documentation center in France would generally have been regarded as a special library in the United States. This insight makes her trip reports interestingly different from the usual practice of making forced distinctions between documentation and librarianship. She gave a radio talk in Denver on how the United States had helped French libraries during World War I and had her first contact with computers (Briet, 1952, 1954; also Anon., 1951; Briet, 1976 pp. 34-36).

Briet was a feminist and an effective organizer. In addition to UFOD, she established a women's Rotary Club that achieved a membership of 8,000. She also became President of the Union of European Women.

In 1954, at age 60, Briet took early retirement, apparently discouraged by a general resistance to new ideas. She left the library and information scene and started another career as historian. For nearly thirty years she wrote about the history of the Ardennes region in northern France, her ancestral homeland, and of individuals born there, including the brilliant young poet Arthur Rimbaud, whom she viewed as an enduring symbol of the human spirit ("Rimbaud notre prochain"). She wrote a sympathetic biography of Rimbaud's tough mother, a life of Jean, Comte de Montdejeux (a seventeenth century warrior), and much more.

Briet's writing reflects her upbringing and her social and cultural context. Her historical work is carefully documented. Her manifesto, however, is deliberately hortatory, like similar writings by her contemporaries: Persuasion is expected to follow from the arguments and facts presented -- not from bibliographical footnotes. Thus a pivotal statement defining "document" as a form of evidence is attributed to "a thoughtful contemporary bibliographer" who is not identified. A quotation about how facts become "clothed" in texts is attributed to her friend, the philosopher Raymond Bayer, but no citation is given. In 1976 she published her memoires, a collection of wry, whimsical, and nostalgic anecdotes and observations arranged, appropriately for a documentalist, under keywords in alphabetical order (Briet 1976). For 25 years she had been in the forefront with the pioneers who were then the leaders of our field: Samuel Bradford, Watson Davis, Jean Gérard, Paul Otlet, Walter Schürmeyer, Jean Wyart, and others. Her memory would have been a prime source for that important, but neglected period, but there is no mention of any of those people and very little of that part of her life. For Briet it would probably have seemed boastful and in poor taste to have described her own achievements and it would have been improper and indiscreet to have commented on those of her colleagues.

She died at the age 95 in Paris in 1989.

Acknowledgement. The biographical details are based on the lengthy obituary of Briet by Renée Lemaître and Paul Roux-Fouillet (1989). I am grateful for the help of J. Periam Danton, Ron Day, Mary Niles Maack, and Sylvie Fayet-Scribe.


Anon. (1951). Madame Suzanne Briet. Library of Congress. Information Bulletin, 10, no. 45: 9.

Briet, S. (1951). Qu'est-ce que la documentation? Paris: EDIT, 1951.

Briet, S. (1952). Bibliothèques et centres de documentation technique aus Etats-Unis. Notes d'un voyage de quatre mois (Octobre 1951 - Février 1952). ABCD Archives Bibliothèques Collections Documentation 11: 299-308.

Briet, S. (1954). La formation professionelle des bibliothécaires aus Etats-Unis. ABCD Archives Bibliothèques Collections Documentation 13: 337-340.

Briet, S. (1976). Entre Aisne et Meuse...et au delà. Charleville-Mezières: Société de Ecrivains Ardennais. Les cahiers ardennais 22.

Buckland, M. (1991). Information retrieval of more than text. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42: 586-588.

Cain, J. (1936). Les transformations de la Bibliothèque Nationale et le Dépot annexe de Versailles. Paris: Editions des bibliothèques nationales.

Clapp, V. (1952). [Review of Briet 1951.] Library of Congress Information Bulletin, 11: 1-3.

Delmas, B. (1992). Une fonction nouvelle: Genèse et développement des centres de documentation. In: Histoire des bibliothèques françaises. [Vol. 4.] Les bibliothèques au XXe siècle. 1914-1990. (178-193). Paris: Promodis - Editions du cercle de la librairie.

Delmas, B. (1993). L'INTD et son rôle dans la formation des documentalistes en France 1932-1993. Documentaliste 30, no. 4/5 (Juillet-Octobre 1993): 218-226.

Documentaliste, 30, no. 4/5 (Juillet-Octobre 1993): 189-284. Special issue: Contributions à l'histoire de la Documentation en France.

Lemaître, R., & Roux-Fouillet, P. (1989). Suzanne Briet (1894-1989). Bulletin d'Informations de l'Association des bibliothecaires Français, 144: 55-56.

Maack, M. N. (1983). Women librarians in France: The first generation. Journal of Library History, 18: 407-449.

Richards, P. S. (1992). Scientific information in occupied France, 1940-44. Library Quarterly 62: 295-305.

Shera, J. H. (1966). Documentation and the Organization of Knowledge. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.

Go to Michael Buckland's History page.