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?

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9 thoughts on “Suzanne Briet: madame documentation and librarian extraordinaire

  1. amy

    I’m going to send your posting around to the students at McGill – there are a number of feminist rabble rousers in the program, so we’ll see what we can do about getting the word out.

    Awesome post!

    amy buckland
    (no relation to Michael… but the name certainly helps in the LIS world!)

  2. Mark

    Some few of us at UIUC know of her due, primarily, to Boyd Rayward. Unfortunately, he just retired. I heard Dr. Buckland speak about Emmanuel Goldberg at a conference in 2006, and have heard him a few other times, too.

    As one of the weirder students who actually hang out with the LIS historians (a grand lot if there ever was one) I know of many of these people. As to how to get others interested in them I have no idea. LIS is basically ahistoric at this point. I’m not even going to try and say why, but it is so sad.

    But I shall attempt to spread the word further by linking to this on the UIUC Progressive Librarians Guild page.

    mark : no relation to Michael Buckland but I did tag him with an antelope sticker once [sorry, bad LIS joke].

  3. Gardner Campbell

    Thanks for the links to Buckland’s article and the information on Briet–both very valuable.

    I do have some concerns about your argument in this post, however. I’m curious about why you feel non-Christians are marginalized in the history of information science. The list you provide at the end of the post seems arbitrary to me in that regard. I don’t see Buckland’s paper making the argument that Bush’s ideas got more attention because he was Christian–indeed, do we know that Bush was Christian? Clearly Hitler and Hoover would have wanted to marginalize Goldberg because of his Jewishness, but it’s still a stretch, in my view, to conclude that information scientists and info-science historians are more likely to promote Christians than non-Christians in their chronicles, as you imply.

    Also, I think it’s important to recognize that Bush’s primary contribution was not so much the technology he imagined as the way in which he viewed information technology’s power as a supplement or extension to human cognition. The word “computer” suggests that Bush’s vision was not widespread–these machines were for rapid calculations, so how could that be a cognitive aid? Buckland’s admirable essay moves too quickly, I think, to dismiss Bush’s idea of associative trails. Buckland argues that these trails are too idiosyncratic to be of social value, and that they change so rapidly with additional learning that to specify them at any given point generates data that will quickly become irrelevant even for the individual. If that were true, however, Google wouldn’t work. Also, Bush’s vision at its most intense suggests that these associative trails could and should be shared, and by implication the sharing of associative trails would generate new associative trails. The Memex’s social function is every bit as important as its private function, but Buckland does not treat that part of Bush’s essay. Bush’s vision is of a distributed cognition as well as an intimate supplement to memory. I would argue that more conventional information indexes are necessary but not sufficient, and have arisen at least in part because there was no technology powerful enough to generate distributed cognition in any way besides taxonomies–with the possible exception of natural language, the ultimate folksonomy.

    By all means, the histories of information science should find and celebrate those pioneers (and those working today) who have been eclipsed, forgotten, or marginalized, for whatever reasons. But that is no reason to diminish Bush’s contribution, or to suggest that his influence is largely the result of social injustice. While I think Buckland does not acknowledge or analyze the real conceptual power of Bush’s famous essay, his conclusions do try to treat the matter fairly, at least to the extent of acknowledging that Bush’s “skillful writing” aided its influence, and making plain that the record strongly suggests that Bush knew nothing of Goldberg’s work. Your first paragraph implies that Bush stole the idea from Goldberg–an unfair and inaccurate implication not supported by either Buckland’s article or the historical record as we now have it.

  4. Pamela

    Hello Danah. I saw a link to this on Tilly’s blog (Paris) and forwarded the link to a college library director and francophile friend. I look forward to learning more. (I’m a friend of Claire’s. I first heard of you and your work through her article “Plus belle, ma vie en ligne,” which I’ll be translating into English in a few weeks.) Your comment on writing being key to fully participating in the social web sparked a lot of discussion among my friends and me. I founded a niche social network in October ’07.

  5. tilly

    Bonjour danah et Pamela šŸ˜‰

    Pamela thank you for spreading the word about Suzanne Briet, and danah thank you for this very late (for me) recognition of an Information Lady. In my post i explain that i got a degree in information science in 1973 at l’INTD, the school that Suzanne Briet had founded… and even though, it’s through your article, danah, that i first heard of her! From the biographies i read by Ron Day and Michael Buckland, i have made up an image of mine of Suzanne Briet being another “Simone de Beauvoir”…

    At the end of the post i also announce of the publication (in French) of “La femme digitale”, a book written by Isabelle JuppĆ©, wife of Alain JuppĆ© former French prime minister.

  6. kgs

    Wow, just catching up with this. I don’t see her so much as like “Google” as with librarians exploring what we might call “embed theory” — exactly like what she talked about, being where the user is. Librarian as service, rather than library as facility.

    Beautiful post… sorry it took me almost three weeks to get to it! I’ll have to think where this fits… she does deserve attention. Might make an interesting “Arthur Curley Lecture” at ALA.


    Karen S.

  7. Dennis Moser

    Thanks so much for sharing all of this … I have recently re-discovered Mdme. Briet as I am researching applications of documentation strategies in virtual realities. She is as applicable today (maybe more so!)as she was then in my class in archives where I, too, argued that the antelope was indeed a document.

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