The future of documents

Pervasive, participatory and multi-sensory: Lyn Robinson explores the impact of a new generation of documents.

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Documents have existed since mankind began to make permanent records. The earliest writing dates from around 3,500 BC, and these documents heralded the beginning of our civilised world.

The question of 'what is a document' is central to the discipline of library and information science, and for many of us in professional practice, the answer used to lie safely within the confines of books, journals and newspapers. Over the past 20 years however, even the most die-hard traditionalists will have been compelled to accept digital creep, the consequence of the technological developments which have given us e-books, e-journals, online newspapers, blogs, tweets, e-science, big-data, and the paradigm change of digital scholarship. Although this adds more complexity to our remit of managing the information communication chain, it also keeps us centre stage; no organisation of documents, no civilisation.

The digital creep has reached beyond our professional boundaries, so that the phrase 'we are all information specialists now' is commonplace. The exact origins of this sentiment are difficult to pinpoint, but undoubtedly they can be found in early electronic organisers, digital messaging, telecommunications, and the move to digital media as a format for music, photographs and films. Handling digital documents is what everyone does, even if most people rarely consider themselves experts in personal information management.

Alongside the outpouring of digital texts and multimedia, we have also faced the convergence of libraries with museums, art galleries and archives, enfolding us within the attractively named ‘GLAM’ sector. Those amongst us with academic aspirations have considered whether museum artefacts, artworks and archival items, might also be considered as documents. The increase of digitisation programmes has spurred us on in this direction, with hybrid libraries and digital libraries becoming the norm. Digital files require new concepts of meta-data, new storage systems, new discovery interfaces, and new processes for preservation and continued access. We also need new policies for regulatory issues, and new understanding of the concepts of collections and audiences.

These changes then, have fostered developments in knowledge organisation, publication and dissemination, how we understand authorship, human information behaviour and systems design and interaction, so that modern library and information science courses at all levels require constant updating to equip information professionals with an understanding of contemporary documents and their handling.

My interest goes further, looking ahead to the immersive documents that are already demanding our attention. By immersive, we mean an extension to the idea of being absorbed in a good book, to the perception of an unreal experience, unreality, as reality. We don’t quite have the technology yet; we are limited to the sort of encounter facilitated by virtual reality, where the suspension of disbelief is hindered by the clumsy equipment. But this will change. Computing technology continues to shrink in size and weight, networked computing moves towards a pervasive presence, multimedia becomes multisensory, and interactive becomes participatory.

The convergence of these technologies, will further combine with our understanding of transmedia storytelling, so that films, texts, games, education and training can all be delivered as an unreal reality, where the exact sequence of events and eventual ending are determined by the 'reader'.

The emergence of immersive technologies makes further demands on how the information professions understand documents. We need to understand the nature of these documents and how they can be managed. We need to understand how people will use these documents, and the impact that this is likely to have on collections, library services, reading, education, entertainment, the economy and social structure.

We need to plan for unreality.


Lyn Robinson is a senior lecturer in information science at City University London, UK.  You can hear Lyn speak about the Future of Documents in Session C101 at Internet Librarian International on 21 October 2014.  For more information see the conference website.