What is a document?^

They fill our filing cabinets and computers. We write them, read them, share them. But what are they? They're documents, of course, but what is a document?

Many concepts seem clear enough until we really think about them. As Saint Augustine famously said, "I know perfectly well what time is—until someone asks me to explain it." Perhaps the same can be said of documents: It may seem obvious what a document is, until we really try to figure out what makes something a document.

On this page, we'll explore the history and theory of documents in order to attempt to answer this enduring question.

Why documents matter^

Some have dubbed this the Information Age. We're told that modern society is driven by information. But this view may be misdirected; all societies are and have always been "information societies." What sets our time apart is the proliferation of documents, rather than information per se. Ours is a document society.

All day long, in practically every task, we work with documents. Web pages, books, newspapers, articles, forms, advertisements, notices, television, street signs, artworks, notes, social media posts, emails, memos, mailings... To function in society, to understand the meaning of these things, we have to know how to work with specific types of documents. We approach a newspaper article differently than a novel; we'd assess a handwritten No Parking sign differently than a signpost.

We can call these skills document literacy, allied with media literacy and information literacy. And as documents become more and more important, so does document literacy. Examples abound. For instance, the book and documentary Merchants of Doubt (along with the earlier book Doubt Is Their Product) showed how corporations created reports that mimicked the formatting of legitimate scientific reports in order to cast doubt on the reality of climate change. Unless we are document literate, how are we to know which is legitimate?

Documents across history^

The document is an ancient concept. In Classical Rome, the verb docere referred to teaching or proving, generally through oral instruction. Docere gave rise to the French concept of document (where the English word comes from), which took on a new meaning in Early Modernity with the advent of the printing press and fast-maturing legal systems. From here, the document was seen as a form of text-based evidence of something. As the global scientific community emerged in the 19th century, the circulation of documents became vital to the development of science, just as it had for the law. Finally, with the rise of digital technology, the word "document" found new legs—just like "mouse," "scroll" and many others—such that nowadays the first thing that comes to mind when we think of document is a word-processed file, such as a Microsoft Word document or Google Doc.

From this account, we can see how our conceptualization of document has changed throughout history. Over time, the concept of the document has picked up a number of related associations—having to do with teaching, evidence, social systems, communication, technology, representation and more. Today, the way scholars think about documents is informed by this rich tradition. Indeed, documents are much more than mere texts.

In the next section, we'll explore some of the main theorists in the world of document studies.

Document theory^

Prior to the 20th century, library science was primarily concerned with books. But as libraries positioned themselves as satisfiers of information needs at the turn of the century, scholars and practitioners—most famous among them the Belgian bibliographer Paul Otlet (1868–1944)—came to realize that other sorts of things could provide information as well. Newspapers, for instance. And if newspapers, then maps. If maps, then globes. In this way, Otlet came to favor a focus on documents rather than just books, a category which was not exclusively two-dimensional or textual—for Otlet, biological specimens and museum objects could also be considered documents.

Decades later, the French librarian Suzanne Briet (1894–1989) now-famously argued that an antelope in a zoo is a document just as much as a book in a library:

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 in a museum of mineralogy, and the animals that are cataloged and shown in a zoo, are documents.

Based on this, scholars have come to the conclusion that anything can be a document if it is considered as such. This points to the centrality of a human person in "making" the document, since without a person the "document" can't provide evidence, teach or anything else. Different scholars talk about this in different ways. French documentalist Jean Meyriat (1921–2010) said that there were documents by intention, objects such as books and newspapers that were made in order to serve as documents, as well as documents by attribution, things such as Briet's antelope that weren't created to be documents per se but later become documents for certain people. Michael Buckland has offered a further nuance to Meyriat's documents by attribution by saying that some things can be considered as documents on an ad hoc basis by individuals, but things can also be made into documents in a more broadly accepted way.

But if anything can be a document, doesn't the concept lose all meaning? It might seem so, but there are a number of important aspects that make a thing a document: indexicality, complementarity, fixity, documentality and productivity.


Documents are representations. They point to other things. In the philosophical tradition of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), this idea is referred to as indexicality (think of how "index finger" and "pointer finger" mean the same thing). Briet made the connection between the document and indexicality in defining the document as "a symbol or indexical sign." Ron Day continues to write about documents and indexicality, referring to this as aboutness.


In physics, the principle of complementarity was developed to explain why some objects have distinct properties that can only be observed in mutually exclusive experiments—for instance, in one experiment, light may seem to behave as a wave, while in another it might seem to act as a series of particles. Niels Windfeld Lund drew from this idea to suggest that the document is also defined by complementarity: Documents have aspects that are informational (mental), material (physical) and communicational (social). The mental component includes the individual, cognitive aspects of the document; the material component includes the technological and physical aspects of the document; and the social component includes the economic, political and cultural aspects of the document. With complementarity, we can recognize that it's more than just the "content" of a document that contributes to its meaning.


In their physical form, documents are relatively stable. A book from the 1500s, for instance, may be largely the same as it was when it was printed. The fact that documents are inherently fixed but transportable is what gives them their power, according to Bruno Latour, who coined the concept of immutable mobile. In the view of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, the document's fixity also allows it to build social groups, as "a sense of community arises from reading the same text." David Levy has pointed out that documents—especially on the web—are not entirely fixed, introducing the twin notion of fluidity and talking about the tension between fixity and fluidity.


Bernd Frohmann has coined the term documentality to describe the special power that a document has:

its capacity to produce, afford, allow, encourage, permit, influence, render possible, block, or forbid ... in its arrangements with other things.

Importantly, documentality is not a binary, on-or-off concept; a given document may exhibit documentality more or less intensely than another. As developed by Frohmann, documentality has four aspects:


From a given document, new documents can be made. Briet referred to these as primary documents and secondary documents. In the example of her antelope in the zoo, the antelope itself can be considered a primary document in light of the countless secondary documents that it engendered:

A professor of the Museum discusses it in his courses. The living animal is placed in a cage and cataloged (zoological garden). Once it is dead, it will be stuffed and preserved (in the Museum). It is loaned to an Exposition. It is played on a sound­track at the cinema. Its voice is recorded on a disk. The first monograph serves to establish part of a treatise with plates, then a special encyclope­dia (zoological), then a general encyclopedia. The works are cataloged in a library, after having been announced at publication (publisher catalogues and Bibliography of France). The documents are recopied (drawings, watercolors, paintings, statues, photos, films, microfilms), then selected, analyzed, described, translated (documentary productions)...

Recently, Sabine Roux has built on this idea by dismissing any notion of hierarchy that the names primary and secondary might imply, preferring to think of documents as a rhizome, based on the philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Lars Björk also considers the productivity of documents, but from a slightly different angle: Rather than focusing on the different documents that stem from a given document, Björk's work examines issues arising from attempting to reproduce a document, such as in photocopying or digitizing.

Traditions in document(ation) studies^

Document(ation) studies grew out of library science in the late 19th century. Throughout the 20th century, it had an enduring tradition of research and practice throughout Europe (particularly in France); contrastingly, in America, interest in the document was gradually supplanted by interest in information and technology. With these different interests came different goals and values, and the document perspective came to be increasingly at odds with the information perspective.

Happily, though, in the emerging tradition of neo-documentation, these legacies are being reunited, along with a wealth of global perspectives, in celebration of the document. Document studies continues to respect its roots library and information science, but whereas general library and information science has a decidedly technological focus, document(ation) studies allows us to reconcile the technological with the human, both individual and social. In this way, document studies draws from and benefits a wide range of the traditional academic disciplines, from communication studies and philosophy of science to the humanities and museum studies. The Document Academy, itself a document of this new tradition in document(ation) studies, values this diversity of perspective and encourages innovative, holistic collaboration among researchers, practitioners and the public.