Suzanne Briet: madame documentation and librarian extraordinaire
This entry goes out to all of the librarians and information school students who read this blog.
One of the best parts of being in an information school is that you get to learn all sorts of things about people who loved information long before there was an economy for it. One of the professors in my school – Michael Buckland – always astonishes me with stories about great information gods and goddesses, many of whom never got credit for their work. His latest book Emanuel Goldberg and His Knowledge Machine tracks the story of a Jewish inventor who escaped Germany only to have many of his inventions stolen by Americans. Think Vannevar Bush invented the Memex? Think again.
Buckland piqued my interest with another story of brilliant librarian who ignored and forgotten: Suzanne Briet. A feminist, rabble rouser, and historian, Briet was one of the first behind the documentalist movement during the interim period.
“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.(Day)
Sounds like Google, no?
“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.” (Day)
Her writings continue on to anticipate actor-network theory (an approach popular in information schools). She challenged positivist and quantitative notions of “information”, attributing a cultural origin and function to documentation and documentary signs (“What is Documentation?”).
Brilliant as she was, she was ignored and forgotten. Only one librarian attended her funeral. Most of her writings were ignored and never translated. Even today, few information scholars know about her and fewer teach her contributions. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry!
In an attempt to make her work more accessible, Ronald Day, Laurent Martinet, and Hermina Anghelescu have translated her work “What is Documentation?” into English and PDFified it for free download. Together with Buckland, they have also put together a website dedicated to her. Their hope is that more information scholars will learn of her and understand the historical context of documentation culture. Personally, I’m intrigued to learn that a brilliant feminist scholar was so visionary yet so forgotten.
Dearest librarians and fellow information students, Michael Buckland, the rescuer of forgotten librarians, is curious what it will take to truly resuscitate her memory? We live in a world of records and information, yet we often forget the explorers and founders (especially if they were women, people of color, gay, or non-Christian). How do we revive the stories of those whose contributions were ignored?