Library Science Graduate School Week 1: Is an Antelope a Document?

This is apparently a standard first-year library science question designed to “blow our minds” and get graduate students thinking about the nature and organization of information. It’s also somewhat of an ongoing joke in the library science community, even inspiring UCLA students to design antelope-themed T-shirts in previous years.

My gut reaction was: Uh, of course an antelope isn’t a document. Unless by antelope you mean pieces of paper with written information on them. After all, I think of a “document” as a piece of paper, or a collection of papers, upon which written or pictoral information is printed. Right? But there are never concrete answers in the Social Sciences.

In her famous What Is Documentation?, Suzanne Briet argues that an antelope that is stuffed, displayed, cataloged, and studied for educational purposes is in fact a document. Those running around in the wild would not be considered documents but in fact actual antelopes. Other theorists would call a dead, cataloged antelope an “object-like document.” Still others would call that a dead antelope.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a document is:

1. Teaching, instruction, warning. Obs.
2. An instruction, a piece of instruction, a lesson; an admonition, a warning. Obs.
3. That which serves to show, point out, or prove something; evidence, proof. Chiefly with dependent clause. Obs.
4. Something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc.

Agree to disagree OED!

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