Preprint of article published in Document Numérique (Paris) 2, no. 2 (1998): 221-230. It may differ in
small ways from the published version. This is a shortened version, with a little more attention to digital
documents, of "What is a 'document'?" Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48, no.
9 (Sept 1997): 804-809, reprinted in Hahn, T. B. & M. Buckland, eds. Historical Studies in Information
Science. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 1998, pp. 215-220.
translation by Branca Fiagic, August 2019.
es un "documento digital"?, Spanish translation by Manuel Gomez, July 2020.
What is a "digital document"?
School of Information Management and Systems,
University of California,
Berkeley, CA, USA 94720-4600
Abstract The question "What is a digital document?" is seen as a special case of the question "What is
a document?" Ordinarily the word "document" denotes a textual record. Early this century, attempts to
provide access to the rapidly growing quantity of available documents raised questions about which
should be considered a "document". Paul Otlet and others developed a functional view of "document"
and discussed whether, for example, sculpture, museum objects, and live animals, could be considered to
be "documents". Suzanne Briet equated "document" with organized physical evidence. These ideas
resemble notions of "material culture" in cultural anthropology and "object-as-sign" in semiotics. Others,
especially in the USA (e.g. Jesse Shera and Louis Shores) took a narrower view. Old confusions between
medium, message, and meaning are renewed with digital technology because technological definitions of
"document" become even less realistic when everything is in bits.
When we refer to a paper document, a papyrus document, or a microfilmed document, the meaning is
clear. However, the idea of a "digital document" is more difficult. We can recognize e-mail and a
technical report generated by a wordprocessor as digital documents, but beyond these simple examples
the concept of a "document" becomes less clear. Is a software program a document? It has lines of
language-like text. Is an operating system a document? One can enumerate different types of digital
documents and this is necessary because of the need to specify standards in order to achieve efficiency
and interoperability. But if one seeks completeness, the process becomes arbitrary and intellectually
unsatisfying because it is not clear where the frontier between documents and non-documents should be.
A paper document is distinguished, in part, by the fact that it is on paper. But that aspect, the
technological medium, is less helpful with digital documents. An e-mail message and a technical report
exist physically in a digital environment as a string of bits, but so does everything else in a physical
environment. "Multimedia," which used to denote multiple, physically-different media, is now of
renewed interest, because, ironically, the multiple media can be reduced to the mono-medium of
electronically stored bits.
For practical purposes, people develop pragmatic definitions, such as "anything that can be given a file
name and stored on electronic media" or "a collection of data plus properties of that data that a user
chooses to refer to as a logical unit." And, as so often in discussions of information, one finds definitions
of "document" that focus on one aspect and are often highly metaphorical, such as "`captured'
knowledge," "data in context," and "an organized view of information."
Digital systems have been concerned primarily with text and text-like records (e.g. names, numbers, and
alphanumeric codes), but the present interest in icons and graphics reminds us that we may need to deal
with any phenomena that someone may wish to observe: events, processes, images, and objects as well as
texts [BUC 91].
2. From document to "documentation"
Digital documents are relatively new, but discussion of the broader question "What is a document?" is
not new. In the late 19th century there was increasing concern with the rapid increase in the number of
publications, especially of scientific and technical literature and of social "facts." Continued
effectiveness in the creation, dissemination, utilization of recorded knowledge was seen as a needing new
techniques for managing the rising flood of documents.
The "managing" that was needed had several aspects. Efficient and reliable techniques were needed for
collecting, preserving, organizing (arranging), representing (describing), selecting (retrieving),
reproducing (copying), and disseminating documents. The traditional term for this activity was
"bibliography". However, "bibliography" was not entirely satisfactory. It was felt that something more
than traditional "bibliography" was needed, e.g. techniques for reproducing documents and
"bibliography" also had other well-established meanings in related to traditional techniques of book-production.
Early in the 20th century the word "documentation" was increasingly adopted in Europe instead of
"bibliography" to denote the set of techniques needed to manage this explosion of documents. From
about 1920 "documentation" (and related words in English, French and German) was increasingly
accepted as a general term to encompass bibliography, scholarly information services, records
management, and archival work. After about 1950 more elaborate terminology, such as "information
science", "information storage and retrieval", and "information management", increasing replaced the
3. From documentation back to "document"
The problems created by the increase in printed documents did lead to the development of techniques
developed to manage significant (or potentially significant) documents, meaning, in practice, printed
texts. But there was (and is) no theoretical reason why documentation should be limited to texts, let
alone printed texts. There are many other kinds of signifying objects in addition to printed texts. And if
documentation can deal with texts that are not printed, could it not also deal with documents that are not
texts at all? How extensively could documentation be applied? Stated differently, if the term
"document" were used in a specialized meaning as the technical term to denote the objects to which the
techniques of documentation could be applied, how far could the scope of documentation be extended.
What could (or could not) be a document? However, the question was not often formulated in these
An early development was to extend the notion of document beyond written texts, a usage to be found in
major English and French dictionaries. "Any expression of human thought" was a frequently used
definition of "document" among documentalists. In the USA, the phrases "the graphic record" and "the
generic book" were widely used. This was convenient for extending the scope of the field to include
pictures and other graphic and audio-visual materials. The Belgian Paul Otlet (1868-1944) is known for
his observation that documents could be three dimensional, thereby including sculpture. From 1928,
museum objects were likely to be included by documentalists within definitions of "document" (e.g. DUP
33). The overwhelming practical concern of documentalists was with printed documents, so the question
of how far the definition of "document" could be extended received little direct attention. Occasionally a
thoughtful writer would discuss the topic, perhaps because interested in some novel form of signifying
object, such as educational toys, or because of a desire to theorize.
Paul Otlet: Objects as documents
Otlet extended the definition of "document" half-way through his Traité de documentation of 1934 [OTL
34]. Graphic and written records are representations of ideas or of objects, he wrote, but the objects
themselves can be regarded as "documents" if you are informed by observation of them. As examples of
such "documents" Otlet cites natural objects, artifacts, objects bearing traces of human activity (such as
archaeological finds), explanatory models, educational games, and works of art (OTL 34: p. 217]; also
[OTL 90: pp. 153 & 197], and [IZQ 95]).
In 1935 Walter Schuermeyer wrote: "Nowadays one understands as a document any material basis for
extending our knowledge which is available for study or comparison." ("Man versteht heute unter einem
Dokument jede materielle Unterlage zur Erweiterung unserer Kenntnisse, die einem Studium oder
Vergleich zugänglich ist." [SCH 35: p. 537]).
Similarly, the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation, an agency of the League of Nations,
working in collaboration with Union Français des Organismes de Documentation, developed technical
definitions of "document" and related technical terms in English, French and German versions:
"Document : Toute base de connaissance, fixée matériellement, susceptible d'être utilisée pour
consultation, étude ou preuve. Exemples: manuscrits, imprimés, représentations graphiques ou figurés,
objets de collections, etc...
Document : Any source of information, in material form, capable of being used for reference or study or
as an authority. Examples : manuscripts, printed matter, illustrations, diagrams, museum specimens,
etc.... ([ANO 37: p. 234])
Suzanne Briet: Physical evidence as document
Suzanne Briet (1894-1989), the perceptive French librarian, addressed the extension of the meaning of
"document" with unusual directness. (For Briet, also known as Suzanne Dupuy and as Suzanne Dupuy-Briet, see [LEM 89], [BUC 95], [BUC 97b]). In 1951 Briet published a manifesto on the nature of
documentation, Qu'est-ce que la documentation, which starts with the assertion that "A document is
evidence in support of a fact." ("Un document est une preuve à l'appui d'un fait" ([BRI 51: p. 7]). She
then elaborates: A document is "any physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded, intended to
represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon". ("Tout indice concret
ou symbolique, conservé ou enregistré, aux fins de représenter, de reconstituer ou de prouver un
phénomène ou physique ou intellectuel." p. 7.) The implication is that one should consider
documentation to be concerned with access to evidence rather than with access to texts.
Briet gives examples: A star in the sky is not a document, but a photograph of it would be; a stone in a
river is not a document, but a stone exhibited in a museum would be; an animal in the wild is not a
document, but a wild animal presented in a zoo would be. An antelope running wild on the plains of
Africa should not be considered a document, she rules. But if it were to be captured, taken to a zoo and
made an object of study, it has been made into a document. It has become physical evidence being used
by those who study it. Indeed, scholarly articles written about the antelope are secondary documents,
since the antelope itself is the primary document.
Briet's rules for determining when an object has become a document are not made clear, but her
discussion seems to indicate that:
1. There is materiality: Only physical objects can be documents, cf. [BUC 91];
2. There is intentionality: It is intended that the object be treated as evidence;
3. The objects have to be processed: They have to be made into documents; and, we think,
4. There is a phenomenological position: The object is perceived to be a document.
This situation is reminiscent of discussions of how an image is made art by framing it as art. Did Briet
mean that just as "art" is made art by "framing" (i.e. treating) it as art, so an object becomes a
"document" when it is treated as a document, i.e. as a physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded,
intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon?
Ron Day ([DAY 96]) has suggested, very plausibly, that Briet's use of the word "indice" is important,
that it is indexicality--the quality of having been placed in an organized, meaningful relationship with
other evidence--that gives an object its documentary status.
Donker Duyvis: A spiritual dimension to documents
Frits Donker Duyvis (1894-1961), who succeeded Paul Otlet as the central figure in the International
Federation for Documentation, epitomized the technological modernism of the documentalists in his
dedication to the trinity of scientific management, standardization, and bibliographic control as
complementary and mutually reinforcing bases for achieving progress ([ANO 64]). Yet Donker Duyvis
was not a materialist. He adopted Otlet's view that a document was an expression of human thought, but
he did so in terms of Anthroposophy, a spiritual movement based on the notion that there is a spiritual
world comprehensible to pure thought and accessible only to the highest faculties of mental knowledge.
As a result, Donker Duyvis was sensitive to what we might now call the cognitive aspects of the medium
of the message. He wrote that:
"A document is the repository of an expressed thought. Consequently its contents have a spiritual
character. The danger that blunt unification of the outer form exercises a repercussion on the contents
in making the latter characterless and impersonal, is not illusory.... In standardizing the form and layout
of documents it is necessary to restrict this activity to that which does not affect the spiritual contents
and which serves to remove a really irrational variety." ([DON 42]. Translation from [VOO 64: p. 48])
Ranganathan: Micro-thought on a flat surface
The Indian theorist S. R. Ranganathan, usually so metaphysical, took a curiously narrow and pragmatic
position on the definition of "document", resisting even the inclusion of audiovisual materials such as
radio and television communications. "But they are not documents; because they are not records on
materials fit for handling or preservation. Statues, pieces of china, and the material exhibits in a museum
were mentioned because they convey thought expressed in some way. But none of these is a document,
since it is not a record on a more or less flat surface." (RAN 63: p. 41]).
Ranganathan's view of "document" as a synonym for "embodied micro thought" on paper "or other
material, fit for physical handling, transport across space, and preservation through time" was adopted by
the Indian Standards Institution ([IND 63: p. 24]). Others, also, took a limited view of what documents
were. In the USA, two highly influential authors opted for a view of documents that was only an
extension of textual records to include audiovisual communications. Louis Shores popularized the
phrase "the generic book" (e.g. [SHO 77]) and Jesse H. Shera used "the graphic record" with much the
same meaning (e.g. [SHE 72]).
4. Anthropology: Material culture
Otlet was explicit that his view of "document" included archaeological finds, traces of human activity,
and other objects not intended as communication. "Collections of objects brought together for purposes
of preservation, science and education are essentially documentary in character (Museums and Cabinets,
collections of models, specimens and samples). These collections are created from items occurring in
nature rather than being delineated or described in words; they are three dimensional documents." ([OTL
20]. Translation from [OTL 90: p. 197]).
The notion of objects as documents resembles the notion of "material culture" among cultural
anthropologists "for whom artifacts contributed important evidence in the documentation and
interpretation of the American experience." ([AME 85: p. ix) and in museology (e.g. [KAP 94], [PEA
5. Semiotics: "Text" and "object-as-sign"
Briet's ideas concerning the nature of a "document" invite discussion in relation to semiotics. In this
context we note Dufrenne's discussion of the distinction between aesthetic objects and signifying objects:
"The function of such [signifying] objects is not to subserve some action or to satisfy some need but to
dispense knowledge. We can, of course, call all objects signifying in some sense. However, we must
single out those objects which do more than signify merely in order to prepare us for some action and
which are not used up merely in the fulfillment of the task. Scientific texts, catechisms, photograph
albums, and, on a more modest scale, signposts are all signs whose signification engages us in an
activity only after having first furnished us with information." ([DUF 73: p. 114]).
We can observe that by the inclusion of museum and other "found" objects, Briet's "any physical or
symbolic sign" appears to include both human signs and natural signs. Others developed the notion of
"object-as-sign". Roland Barthes, for example, in discussing "the semantics of the object", wrote that
objects "function as the vehicle of meaning: in other words, the object effectively serves some purpose,
but it also serves to communicate information: we might sum it up by saying that there is always a
meaning which overflows the object's use." ([BAR 88: p. 182]). We can note the widespread use of the
word "text" to characterize patterns of social phenomena not made of words or numerals, but there seems
to have been relatively little attention to the overlap between semiotics and information management.
(See, however, [WAR 90].)
One difference between the views of the documentalists discussed above and contemporary views is the
emphasis that would now be placed on the social construction of meaning, on the viewer's perception of
the significance and evidential character of documents. In semiotic terminology,
"...signs are never natural objects... The reason is simply that the property of being a sign is not a
natural property that can be searched for and found, but a property that is given to objects, be they
natural or artificial, through the kind of use that is made of them. Both as objects and as means, signs
have to be treated as something invented, and in this sense they are correlated to actions." ([SEB 94: v.
1, p. 18]).
Briet's notion of documents as evidence can occur in at least two ways. One purpose of information
systems is to store and maintain access to whatever evidence has been cited as evidence of some
assertion. Another approach is for the person in a position to organize artefacts, samples, specimens,
texts, or other objects to consider what it could tell one about the world that produced it, and then, having
developed some theory of its significance to place the object in evidence, to offer it as evidence by the
way it is arranged, indexed or presented. In this manner information systems can be used not only in
finding material that already is in evidence, but also in arranging material so that someone may be able to
make use of it as (new) evidence for some purpose. ([WIL 95]).
6. Digital documents
The evolving notion of "document" among Otlet, Briet, Schuermeyer, and the other documentalists
increasingly emphasized whatever functioned as a document rather than traditional physical forms of
documents. The shift to digital technology seems to make this distinction even more important. Levy's
thoughtful analyses have shown that an emphasis on the technology of digital documents has impeded
our understanding of digital documents as documents (e.g. [LEV 94]). Every thing in digital technology
is stored as a string of bits, so the usual physical form (on paper, on microfilm) no longer helps. In this
sense, any distinctiveness of a document as a physical form is further diminished.
Fifty years ago, one would look up logarithmic values in a printed book of "log tables" in order to do
calculations. The volume of log tables was a conventional document. Today, one could imagine using a
set of log tables stored online, which could be regarded as a digital version of the printed log tables.
However, it is more likely that one would use an algorithm to compute log values as needed. The answer
given should be the same. Perhaps one does not know whether the computer has used a table or an
algorithm. The table and the algorithm seem functionally equivalent. What has happened to the notion
of a "document"? One answer is that whatever is displayed on the screen or printed out is a document.
One might say that the algorithm is functioning as a document, as a dynamic kind of document, one that
reminds us of Otlet's view that an educational toy should be considered to be a kind of document. It
would be consistent with the trend, described above, towards a defining a document in terms of function
rather than physical format.
Each different technology has different capabilities, different constraints. If we sustain the functional
view of what constitutes a document, we should expect documents to take different forms in the contexts
of different technologies and so we should expect the range of what could be considered a document to
be different in a digital and paper environments. The algorithm for generating logarithms, like a
mechanical educational toy, can be seen as a dynamic kind of document unlike ordinary paper
documents, but still consistent with the etymological origins of "docu-ment", a means of teaching - or, in
effect, evidence, something from which one learns.
Attempts to define digital documents are likely to remain elusive, if more than an ad hoc, pragmatic
definition is wanted. Definitions based on form, format and medium appear to be less satisfactory that a
functional approach, following the path of reasoning underlying the largely forgotten discussions of
Otlet's objects and Briet's antelope.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful for the helpful comments of Ron Day, W. Boyd Rayward and Patrick
Wilson. An earlier version of this paper with some additional historical details was published as [BUC
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