Bulletin, December 2006/January 2007

Suzanne Briet:  An Appreciation

by Ronald E. Day

Ronald E. Day is an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University. He can be reached at Roday<at>indiana.edu

Suzanne Briet (1894-1989) was an important figure in European documentation, a movement that, in practical terms, resembled the special libraries movement in the United States, but also, in intellectual terms, anticipated information science. Briet can be seen as a central figure in what we may term the “second generation” of European documentation. If the first generation is manifest in the work of Paul Otlet (1868-1944), then the second generation is in that of Suzanne Briet, and in particular her small, but important, 1951 book, What Is Documentation? (Qu’est-ce que la documentation?). It is a revolutionary work, extending the scope of library science and going beyond Otlet’s emphasis on “the book” as the major form and figure for information management.

Briet was a professional librarian who created the reference room at the French National Library. She was known as “Madame Documentation,” and she strongly identified with the documentalist movement. Her vision of documentation and documentation agencies constituted a revision of librarianship and a radical redefinition of what we consider to be documents. In What Is Documentation? Briet argued that documentalists should be embedded in the cultural contexts of the users that they serve. From this vantage point documentalists can not only retrieve documents, but prospect for information not yet asked for, translate information from other languages, abstract and index documents, and in general, proactively work within the dynamics of the advancement of knowledge in a field. Briet also took a broad view of what range of resources should be used. Bibliography, she declared, is no longer concerned with books but with access to evidence. So any object or event that gives evidence of some fact was functionally a document, not just, or foremost, books or other paper sources. This allowed a variety of materials to be brought within the domain of an information service and the work of the documentalist. What Is Documentation? suggests that personal correspondence, semi-published material (“grey literature”), information provided by telephone, fax and other means, as well as traditional paper and microforms, were all fertile areas for documentary prospecting and management.

One might compare Briet’s vision of documentation agencies or centers to “digital libraries,” which handle a variety of objects and forms (in digital formats, of course), thus taking the notion of a “library” back to an earlier era when libraries were less separate from museums and other similar types of collections. This vision sees documentation centers as concerned with collections of evidential resources of whatever form and material. For Briet, libraries were a type of documentation center, one which gave a privileged place to the form and figure of the book as the central material for library collections and the ideal of documentary forms. 

Briet saw documentation centers and documentalists as charged with unifying a wide variety of “information sources” in a proactive and institutionally embedded manner, translating materials when necessary, and keeping abreast of the researchers’ work and potential needs before being asked to retrieve information. The notion of “culture” in her book, while specifically referring to professional and industrial “cultures” – of professional ways of life and vocabulary – can also be extended to larger national or ethnic cultures. It can include the need of public libraries or public documentation centers to literally speak the language and understand the ways of life of patrons from different ethnic and linguistic groups – and thus to serve them from within, rather than demanding that they come to the physical space of libraries and learn the rather esoteric, technical language of the library’s organization of knowledge, as well as its dominant conversational language.

Briet’s understanding of documentation or information is based on sociological and cultural understandings of user needs, expressed by ways of life and vocabulary. Her notion of the user is not that of individual needs and psychological satisfactions, but rather, institutional and other cultural needs for the performance of tasks and the answering of questions formulated out of social situations and cultural forms. The satisfaction that comes to the user from the documentalist is a satisfaction of being able to do things with documents in all available media and genres. 

Briet’s writings stressed the importance of cultural forms and social situations and networks in creating and responding to information needs, rather than seeing information needs as inner psychological events. She challenges our common assumptions about the role and activities of information professionals and about the form and nature of documents. She speaks to our age of digital libraries, with their multi-documentary forms, but she also challenges the very conceptual assumptions about the form and the organization of knowledge in such digital libraries. Readers of What Is Documentation? will find themselves returning to Briet’s book, again and again, coming upon ever new insights into current problems and ever new challenges to still current assumptions about documents and libraries and about the origins, designs and uses of information management and its systems.

Suzanne Briet’s 1951 book, Qu’est-ce que la documentation? is available in a complete English translation as What Is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text (Scarecrow Press, 2006). Through the generous permission of the publisher, the complete book, consisting of the translation of Briet’s book (translated by Ronald E. Day and Laurent Martinet with Hermina Anghelescu), along with a brief biography and a bibliography of Briet’s works by Michael Buckland and a commentary by Day, can also be found online at http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~roday/briet.htm . A link to the original, French edition of Briet’s book can also be found there, or directly, at http://martinetl.free.fr/briet.pdf 

For Further Reading
Additional sources of commentary on Briet and Briet’s works can be found at the following locations: 
Buckland, M. (2006). Suzanne Briet, 1894-1989: "Madame Documentation." Available October 14, 2006, from www.sims.berkeley.edu/~buckland/briet.html. Note: Michael Buckland’s Suzanne Briet page. 

Discussions of Briet and her ideas can also be found in two articles by Michael Buckland:
“What is a ‘document’?” A preprint of this article is available at www.sims.berkeley.edu/~buckland/whatdoc.html. It was published in the Journal of the American Society of Information Science, v. 48, no. 9 (Sept 1997), pp. 804-809. It is also available online to Wiley Interscience subscribers and subscriber institutions at www.interscience.wiley.com. Also, reprinted in Hahn, T. B. & Buckland, M. (Eds.) (1998). Historical studies in information science. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 215-220.

“Information as thing?” A preprint of this article is available at www.sims.berkeley.edu/~buckland/thing.html. It was published in the Journal of the American Society of Information Science 42:5 (June 1991), pp. 351-360. It is also available online to Wiley Interscience subscribers and subscriber institutions at www.interscience.wiley.com. This text may vary slightly from the published version.

Maack, M. N. (Pre-press version). The Lady and the Antelope: Suzanne Briet's Contribution to the French Documentation Movement. Available October 14, 2006, from www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/maack/BrietPrePress.htm (with photos of Briet).

Fayet-Scribe, S. (2000). Histoire de la documentation en France: culture, science et technologie de l’information: 1895-1937. Paris: CNRS Éditions.

Day, R. (2001). The modern invention of information: discourse, history, and power. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.