Re: What is a document?

Subject: Re: What is a document?
From: Steven Anderson <Steven -dot- Anderson -at- BRIGHTWARE -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 10 Mar 1999 11:23:16 -0800

So far we have three definitions and, in my opinion, they all have problems.

John's definition is very broad (of course, for government work, too broad
is better than too narrow).

John Gilger said:

Any written or pictorial information describing, defining,
specifying, reporting, or certifying activities, requirements,
procedures, or results.

Although this, I believe, includes just about anything that could possibly
be a document, it doesn't really explain anything. It also includes things
that I wouldn't consider documents, such as a clock (it reports a result -
the time).

Jeroen Hendrix said:

Document: A medium and the data recorded on it for human
use. By extension, any record that has permanence and can be read by
man or machine.

I think Jeroen pointed out the major weaknesses of this definition. In
addition, I would ask how can we include the medium in documents such as
e-mail, web pages, or PDF files? If I'm looking at a web site is the medium
the original electronic file, my local cached copy, or is it the appearance
of the text on the screen (in this case, the screen is the medium)? All
three? Are there then three different documents?

Jeroen's definition also includes the audience. If it can't be read by "man
or machine" then it is not a document. I agree with Jeroen's statement,
"Machines don't read documents, but data."

Mark's definition is the most constricting.

Mark Baker said:

A document is a substantial bound collection of static linear
information
generalized for many users over an extended period.

The material must be static, linear, bound, generalized, and must also
stand the test of time. It excludes things like letters, memos, proposals,
or anything else that is for a very small audience. Encyclopedias and
dictionaries fit this definition, but I'm not sure what else does.

These definitions only hint at what, to me, is the most important concept of
a document - a document must transfer information. Mark's definition says a
document must be generalized for many users, Jeroen's says it must be
readable, and John's definition includes a bunch of active words (reporting,
describing, specifying, etc.). All of these, to some extent, imply
information transfer, but none of them specify it.

Do I have a better definition? Nope, sorry. It's just like the old saying
about pornography - "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." As
Mark said, context is an important part of a definition.

Maybe rather than trying to describe what a document is, we should try to
describe what it does.

Two things I feel a document must do:

1. It must transfer information from the creator of the document to
the reader.
2. It must be storable (whether physically or electronically).

Of course, creator and reader are bad word choices, and "It must be
storable" is a weak phrase. Radio programs, credit cards, and movies all
meet these requirements, too. Are they documents? Perhaps someone can come
up with another thing a document must do that will narrow the scope.

Steve Anderson
IWTFM


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