Student Perspectives is our series of posts written by current CityLIS students. This post is written by Tom Mason who looks at post-structuralist theories of documents and documentality. Tom is on Twitter:@tmoams
Stack(ed against me) / One-Two, One-Two.
I have to one side a small stack of books, some LIS-specific, some LIS-associative, some of which I have read, some I have begun, some I’ve dipped in and out of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and others that are awaiting my somewhat time-poor attention and focus.
Patient things, books. Their moment isn’t always the period immediately after you come into possession of them. Study throws this all up in the air of course. They now come with demands. They are in league with the deadlines.
And how about this cardboard envelope chock-full of print-outs? Repurposed, just able to pass for a file, it houses articles, interviews, typed-up notes, drafts; all stuff I can’t quite absorb solely via the various screens I attach myself to. Sifting through, was this a paper to read for DITA, or the Foundation module? Was that Floridi interview required or optional? I could check Moodle but perhaps more coffee will flush out the answer to that one.
Bathing in Roland
For our Foundation Module session 4, one optional reading was a blog post by another CityLIS student, Matthew Peck, entitled ‘The Death of the Document Creator,‘ after Roland’s Barthes famous essay, ‘The Death of the Author’. Peck discusses documents and documentality (“the ‘social function’ of the document”) and finds analogy with Barthes, positing that “the document creator is dead, long live the document consumer,” i.e. how we interpret and catalogue documents becomes as -if not more- important to the ongoing life of the document than its creator and their story.
What is a document? There is the obvious answer: something written, printed, or saved, that exists as an official record. However, exponential growth of online content, to say nothing of machine-to-machine data, makes this a question whose answer is in flux as philosophies of both information and libraries themselves develop alongside -and in response to- societal and technological changes occurring within our Information Age as it steamrolls onwards.
So, a thought is a thought, occurring and existing, it would appear, in the mind. A thought discussed in conversation is something that might be recalled and recounted later if not recorded at the time, or “lost” to the past. A thought noted down produces a document. A thought, say, tweeted, is of course a tweet, and this tweet is an act of publishing that has also created a document. Whether or not all tweets are documents worth saving and storing is, as above, a topic in process of being explored within LIS and beyond. Do we need to record and classify every online utterance or exchange of data? When we ask this, it is natural to presume it is being done, though perhaps without the classification we are familiar with in libraries. Information is data and as such is harvested. And as we all know, deleting something rarely means it has truly been deleted.
The Pleasure of the Record
In looking at the history of documents, records, classifications and coding across both Foundation and DITA modules, a further Roland Barthes association suggested itself to me that I will explore and attempt to make coherent here. Between the document creator and the document consumer is the description of the document; the bibliographic record; the item description and classification.
From my own patchy and incomplete reading of Barthes work, the passages I recall most clearly and find use for in everyday life are the first pages in The Pleasure of the Text, specifically:
‘If I read this sentence, this story, or this word with pleasure, it is because they were written in pleasure (such pleasure does not contradict the writer’s complaints). But the opposite? Does writing in pleasure guarantee -guarantee me, the writer- my reader’s pleasure? Not at all. I must seek out this reader (must “cruise” him) without knowing where he is. A site of bliss is then created. It is not the reader’s “person” that is necessary to me, it is this site: the possibility of a dialectics of desire, of an unpredictability of bliss: the bets are not placed, there can still be a game.’
(Barthes, 1976, p. 5)
What this has always conveyed to me is that, put bluntly, we cannot please everyone and aiming to do so is both futile and misguided for the writing (or artwork, music, etc.) itself. An audience for any serious work is part imagined, part unknown. In this lies the thrill of the writing’s life when gone out into the world. The writing’s intention is to reach –and to seduce- an unknown reader, though its reception and use can never truly be known. As with many things in life, it is for anyone, not necessarily everyone.
In terms of Library and Information Science, could we perhaps see the creation and aim of a bibliographic record in some similar way as Barthes intends with writing? In creating records, we do not target a specific or ‘ideal’ seeker of the document, of information and knowledge. Rather, we create a framework and within this we insert information by which the resource can be found by the curious. The document’s record -its description- is the bridge between that document and the document seeker, it is a gateway to the document. In revealing the document’s existence to the document seeker here, we have our LIS “site of bliss,” offering the next move in our game of knowledge; that which will take place with the document itself.
I am of course generalising, and questions arise that leave me unsure of the analogy. When Peck says “document consumer” does he mean the writer of the document record (who assesses the document in order to classify it for storage and retrieval), or the further user; Barthes’ reader, anyone? Are the creators of bibliographic architecture and records the matchmakers, shooting arrows at documents and their receivers? Or is the record itself the matchmaking device?
The cataloguer and the record generated are in league, for the future (and rather than deadlines, we are now talking lifelines). The cataloguer interprets the document so as to classify it. The ego is necessarily sidestepped, as the intention of a record is -surely- factual, concise and succinct information for the later provision of the document to someone else; the reader, the researcher, the user of the document. Whether or not the cataloguer is consuming the document is debatable. We assess every book that comes into our libraries, but we almost certainly cannot read them all.
Records are the necessary housing for the cataloguing and retrieval of documents and data. While they require formula, are inherently meticulous, exhausting even, they are also intriguing, pleasurable enticements. They act as bridges between curious seeking intellects and meaningful documents. Meaning is that which occurs between people and each other, people and things, people and documents. Records assist in the locating of documents as landmarks assist in the mapping of terrain. Without records, without descriptions of things, without markers, where are we? How do we find things?
Records could also be seen as locks along waterways, mediating the flow and also assisting the boat in getting higher or lower to the next level of the watercourse. At a time when the flow of information appears ever-increasing, this is of use, and perhaps we must be conveying not only the necessity but also the pleasure of the record. Barthes again:
[…] these terrible texts are all the same flirtatious texts.
(Barthes, 1976, p. 6)
Back to the stack
I have not gone into actual systems and standards of records, of which there are many. Neither have I addressed the theoretical side with the depth it might require from this point on. My stack of books includes reading of a more technical nature and practical application.
LIS is providing me with a bridge between the day-to-day realities and processes of library work and the technical, theoretical and historical layers to that work. Dominic Dixon, a CityLIS research student exploring links between the philosophy of information and LIS, spoke eloquently during an ‘After Hours’ session at City about his belief that librarians should have time factored into our roles to develop and build on these layers of our work, rather than simply carrying out the tasks required to keep our libraries running.
Until then, it’s study having to flow around work. But while this terrible stack of reading material won’t read itself, it flirts with the bookish nature and its aspirant academic aspect, and I am seduced enough to wade in, wade on.
My bibliographic reveries are not enough to stop time
My own favourites as a youngster were Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lone_Wolf_(gamebooks)
 Peck, M. ‘The Death of the Document Creator’ 2017. Available at:
 Barthes, R. trans. Heath, S. (1977). Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana.
 Barthes, R. trans. Miller, R. (1976). The Pleasure of the Text. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
 Quote from: Battles, M. (2015) Library: An Unquiet History. New York / London: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.