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  • What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text
  • Jonathan Furner
What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text. By Suzanne Briet . Translated and edited by Ronald E. Day and Laurent Martinet with Hermina G. B. Anghelescu . Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006. xi, 71 pp. $25.00. ISBN 0-8108-5109-1.

The name of the French librarian and documentalist Suzanne Briet (1894–1989) is well known to the contemporary Anglophone information studies community, primarily thanks to those scholars such as Michael Buckland, Ronald E. Day, Birger Hjørland, Mary Niles Maack, and W. Boyd Rayward who have engaged with Briet's writings in the two decades following her death. Buckland, in particular, has caught the imagination of many readers with his analysis of Briet's invocation of an antelope in a zoo as an example of the kind of thing that, in the extended sense in which documentalists use the term, can usefully be considered as a document.

Briet's major work—a forty-eight-page pamphlet called Qu'est-ce que la documentation? (Paris: Éditions Documentaires Industrielles et Techniques, 1951) that serves as the manifesto for a second generation (following Paul Otlet's first) of participants in the European documentation movement—was published by an arm of the Union française des organismes de documentation (UFOD), an organization that Briet cofounded three years before she took early retirement from the Bibliothèque nationale at the age of sixty. A Spanish translation appeared in Argentina in 1960, but English speakers have had to wait until now for this thoughtful translation by Day and Laurent Martinet (with the assistance of Hermina Anghelescu).

Briet trained as a historian, and her writing has remarkable aesthetic qualities. Translation is never an exact science, of course, but translators of technical works are seldom required to exercise as much literary skill and cultural sensitivity as Day and Martinet demonstrate with What Is Documentation?

One of Briet's most important insights was that individual documents may be interpreted in different ways by different people wishing to put them to different uses for different purposes. This variability of interpretation is characteristic of documents even at the level of individual words, and the different decisions made by different translators at the word level can have significant consequences. For instance, the pivotal definition of "document" on which Briet settles in short order—"tout indice concret ou symbolique, conservé ou enregistré, aux fins de représenter, de reconstituer ou de prouver un phénomène ou physique ou intellectuel" (Qu'est-ce que la documentation? 7)—is rendered in Buckland's 1991 paper "Information as Thing" (Journal of the American Society of Information Science [JASIS] 42, no. 5:351–60) as "any concrete or symbolic indication, preserved or recorded, for reconstructing or for proving a phenomenon, whether physical or mental" (355); in Buckland's 1997 paper "What Is a 'Document'?" (JASIS 48, no. 9:804–9) as "any [End Page 107] physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded, intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon" (806); and in Day and Martinet's 2006 edition as "any concrete or symbolic indexical sign, preserved or recorded toward the ends of representing, of reconstituting, or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon" (10) (all emphases added). Buckland's latter choice of "sign" as a translation of the French indice reminds us that the anonymous "linguists and philosophers" whom Briet identifies as sources (10) are usually presumed to be of the structuralist persuasion; interestingly, however, the use of the French indice in a semiotic context derives not from Saussure (who spoke of signes) but from Peirce. In that light, it might be argued that Day and Martinet's addition of "indexical" as a qualifier of "sign" does not wholly deliver on the precision it promises, since the Peircean taxonomy distinguishes clearly between indexical signs (such as photographs) and symbolic signs (such as ordinary words).

In Day and Martinet's edition, Briet continues: "Is a star a document? Is a pebble rolled by a torrent a document? Is a living animal a document? No. But the photographs and the catalogues of stars, the stones...


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