The death of the document creator

In INM301 this week, we talked about defining a document. This is a fundamental philosophical question when investigating the information communication chain, and it’s not a question with an easy answer. My notes include a dutiful transcription of five ‘requirements’ for a document:

  • indexicality: the ‘aboutness’ of the document
  • complementarity: generally speaking, the document’s ‘connotation’
  • fixity: the stability of the document
  • documentality: the ‘social function’ of the document
  • productivity: the ability of the document to give rise to new documents

This is a simplistic recap of the lecture content, and helpfully, the Document Academy has a longer, more authoritative explanation on its website. Reading that page, for instance, clarifies that there is a more complex framework behind the notion of complementarity than mere connotation.

But it was documentality I found troubling, if only for the apparently circular language it employed: a document is a document if/because it is documental. Counselled by Professor Robinson to read Frohmann, I went to his article on the reading list: “Revisiting ‘what is a document?’” In it, he argues that defining the word document is unnecessary. He grounds this in response to traditional, rules-based readings of Wittgenstein and ends on the side of post-structuralism:

Our concepts can lack fixity (and to this degree Wittgenstein is Derridean), what counts as following a rule can be multiple, yet we still can communicate and speak meaningfully, about documents and anything else, because there is no general, inherent ambiguity of language, only specific, contingent ambiguities for particular speakers under specific conditions. (294)

Instead of definition and its inherent limitation, Frohmann says, “[w]e can […] use specific tactics, such as beginning with a clear case of a thing we agree is a document, or an activity we agree is an instance of documentation, and then introduce new cases by analogy, similarity, and resemblance” (296). To follow this line of reasoning, his article then takes what to me is a somewhat odd, but nevertheless an illustrative, turn. Rather than settle on a singular example, such as Briet’s antelope, Frohmann engages with cabinets of curiosities.

In some senses, these curiosities defy the “requirements” of documents: their respective meanings or uses were not always clear, causing their “indexicality” to be questionable (297). One might also contend their “complementarity” was insufficiently multiple – existing in a vacuum of knowledge, their “mental”/informational attributes might be impeded. Frohmann continues at some length about the ultimate non-utility of these objects: they existed for display, not (necessarily) for understanding. Indeed, their desired effect was speechlessness. And yet, he says, reading non-human agency vis-a-vis Latour:

imagine an official, paper document, perhaps bearing a royal seal, that authorizes and is recognized to authorize its holder as having been granted rights to any and all of the respect and privileges of the esteemed social distinction sought by the virtuosi. But that is not enough. We also have to imagine all the work involved in petitioning the royal courts for such a document, in the lengthy court proceedings to prosecute the insubordinate and seditious mavericks, who pay no attention to it, and a host of other institutional set-ups or alignments. Once those are all in place, our imagined document might have the intended effect. (300)

He continues, “[w]hen we compare the effects of the curiosities with those of what we would clearly take to be documents, there seems no reason to withhold the concept of documentation from them” (300). Ta-da! Those bones or artefacts or whatever they might have been are, by virtue of their effect, documents! And thus, for Frohmann, documentality seems of a piece with instrumentality: something acts like a (conventional) document, and therefore it too should be considered a document.

We say “acts like,” but more apt in this case, at least, would be to say “was deployed as and perceived in a way similar to.” Frohmann’s abductive reasoning requires a baseline understanding of what a document is and does. For more on that there is Buckland. He complicates Jean Meyriat’s categorisation of documents by intention (i.e., materials made for the purpose of being documents) or by attribution (i.e., objects not created to be, but nevertheless serving as). He describes these two approaches as the “conventional, material view” and “an instrumental view,” and contrasts them with a “semiotic view,” arguing the first two “emphasize the creation of documents and imply intentionality” (180). Instead, in a semiotic sense, “anything could be considered as a document if it is regarded as evidence of something regardless of what its creator (if any) intended (if anything)” (180; emphasis in original). In Frohmann’s example, the curiosities were created independently of their owners (indeed, some would have been naturally occurring), but they served as symbols of the owners’ position and were read by their audiences as such.

Incidentally, Buckland goes further to trouble the notion of documentality by arguing that documents needn’t be social at all. Rather, they can exist in a purely private capacity. To address this, he suggests considering their “cultural” definition, “since ‘culture’ subsumes both individual and social behavior” (181). In theory, the creator may be the same as the audience; for Buckland, this does not compromise the material’s identification as a document.

As we can see, using their different approaches, Frohmann and Buckland arrive a similar point, opening up documentality in a way that is “inherently individual and can be quite idiosyncratic” (Buckland 181). Indeed, not only are they in effective agreement, Buckland follows Frohmann’s advice to employ analogy. He traces the documental lineage of his passport to his driving licence to his employer ID badge to his office building key. Earlier in the article, he asserts that “[t]hese three views [of the definition of a document] — made as, made into, and considered as — are progressively more inclusive” (181), and his example illustrates this nicely. The passport meets the criteria of a conventional document, but by the time we have reached the door key, we are certainly in the realm of the “inclusive.” Nevertheless, he contends, “the similarities are strong” (185), and the key can, by extension, be considered a document: amongst other functions, it literally unlocks with its inherent information, and it communicates to others the validity of the holder’s presence in a prescribed space.

Having established this case in point, Buckland counsels in conclusion for taking “an exploratory approach that seeks to examine the characteristics and roles of instances of documents and how these characteristics and roles are shared with or interact with other objects not (or not yet) regarded as ‘documents.’” For him, “documents in both conventional and extended senses […] exhibit some kind of code” (185). In other words, documentality would seem to be in the metaphorical eye of the beholder.

And, thus, we come to Barthes.

In Buckland’s abandonment of intentionality and acknowledgement that documents may not even have a creator, he implicitly embraces the death of the author. Barthes describes writing as “that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away”, going further to invoke Mallarmé to claim that “it is language which speaks, not the author” (142–43). Taking Buckland and Frohmann to their logical ends, so it is for the document. We find documentality resides in the conceptual utility of an object, and its origin, including its potential intention, may have an impact on its utility, but is otherwise incidental. If an object is being used, whether by a human or not, to understand something, it exists, if only temporarily, in the realm of The Document.

Put another way: the document creator is dead; long live the document consumer. Barthes contends the text releases “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (146). Taking a semiotic view of documents forces us to extend this claim beyond writings into the broader physical world. Otlet, it seems, was not wrong to attempt to compile any- and everything. What to do with that matter, and how, is the potentially impossible task. But recognising that, and keeping the neo-documentalists in mind, the contemporary challenge is determining the code we wish to unlock and remaining open to the form by which that code may be conveyed. If, as Barthes has it, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (148), information professionals must somehow forge a path through countless potential documents to determine which to formally endorse as such and which, despite their indexicality, complentarity, fixity, documentality and productivity, to leave behind as distractions on the way to a desired destination.


Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Image, music, text. London: Fontana.

Buckland, M. (2014) ‘Documentality Beyond Documents’, The Monist, 97(2), pp. 179–186.

Frohmann, B. (2009) ‘Revisiting “what is a document?”’, Journal of Documentation, 65(2), pp. 291–303. doi: 10.1108/00220410910937624.

What is a Document? Available at: (Accessed: 28 October 2017).

Image: “Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities. Public Domain,


2 thoughts on “The death of the document creator”

  1. A very nice and compelling analysis. The point about ‘private’ documents is particularly interesting. One thinks of Terry Pratchett’s unfinished works, which he directed be crushed by a steamroller after his death, without being read by anyone. Or of a private digital diary, protected by passwords and hence with no possibility of being read by anyone by its author. Are these documents? It would seem that they should be classed as such, since they have all the attributes of a document, apart from a consumer other than their author. Perhaps the latter doesn’t matter; the author is communicating with themselves, as consumer, over time, and that’s enough to give them documentality.


    1. Using this semiotic approach, I would say definitely yes. For me, the materials have two audiences: 1) yes, the author him/herself, but also 2) the population that knows of the objects, even if the text they contain is not available or interpretable. Their mere existence, in your examples, is an indicator of the creators’ practice, identity or personal priorities. Where I think this logic ends up taking a person is a sort of separation between the object and its content as dependent, but nevertheless differently read or categorised signifiers. Ultimately the challenge is the value judgment of determining what aspect of an object as document should be privileged and preserved.


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