A Night at the Museum

Suzanne Briet once posed the question, “Can an antelope be a document?” in her article/pamphlet called What is Documentation?. I won’t go into all the gory details, but that argument has stayed with me since I first read it. She is essentially stating that a document is evidence in support of a fact. Paul Otlet, writing slightly before Briet, said that you can have information (documentation) about objects, but the objects themselves also become documents if you are informed by observing them. So… if you have a map, can it be a document? (Yes.) If you have a photograph can it be a document? (Definitely.) If you have a dinosaur bone, is that a document… does that inform us? (Yes, ask any museum curator!) Well, if a dinosaur bone is a document, can an animal in a zoo, say… an antelope.. be one? (If the zoo = the museum, then doesn’t the antelope = the dinosaur bone?) If you’re really interested in this nerdy-cataloger-type stuff, I recommend Michael Buckland’s treatment of the argument here which he calls “information-as-thing.”

I find this incredibly intriguing, and for 1951, it was amazingly farsighted. We catalog things now that don’t even exist in the real “brick and mortar” world – electronic resources and video and all kinds of stuff. And we do that because we are informed by these bits and bytes that flash across our computer screen. So I was deeply reminded of Otlet’s and Briet’s arguments when I saw this story on Wired’s website: Browse the Artifacts of Geek History. There are books, of course, but they’re covered in precious gems. And there’s a Sputnik rocket. Dinosaur skeletons. An Enigma machine. Escher-like woodwork. A hand-painted book on dwarves, embellished with gold and silver. I could spend weeks in this library and never be bored!

But it got me thinking. In the library field, they’re known as “realia.” Which is quite a dry and dusty term for all these amazing objects that you can see and touch and manipulate. For Briet and Otlet, these items speak for themselves. We can have – and should have – books and papers telling us about each one (and many in this collection have just that!) I can read all about the Soviet Sputnik program, and how the Germans used the Enigma machine to send coded messages to their submarines in World War II. I can look at books of anatomy and physiology about dinosaurs and human brains. I can even read a book about rare books (doesn’t that seem like a contradiction?), hand painted and studded with jewels. But all of those bookish resources – although incredibly valuable – pale in comparison to being in a place where you can touch a skeleton. And hold a meteorite. And tap a code into a machine. And feel the rubies and brush strokes of a 16th century book on jousting.

So this is what I’m thinking, though I admit upfront that it’s completely impractical and implausible.  How cool would it be to COMBINE the idea of a museum and the idea of a library?  So for the folks studying WWII, they can go to the Ds and browse a vast array of books about the war.  And they can see an Enigma machine or other WWII artifacts.  For me at least, that would make the things I was studying more real, more physically present.  Sure you can look at images online, but that just can’t compare to a hands-on experience with a part of history.  Or Shakespeare folios and literature.  Or dinosaur bones and science.   Granted, this might work better in a liberal arts venue than my community college, but the idea deeply intrigues me.  (OK, now you know.  I am certifiably nuts!)

5 thoughts on “A Night at the Museum”

  1. Great post! I, too, love that Buckland paper and also took a stab at it from the perspective of a metadata scheme I was working on. I agree there is a lot of fertile ground that libraries and museums could be building on. It would require each to break with their old ways of thinking, but the benefits (building on the strengths of each) would be great, I think. Still, no small task.

  2. Something related that I’ve been pondering lately — libraries collect librarians as well as books and other objects. It’s fun/scary to think of the librarian as part of the collection, used as a human finding aid and sounding board.

  3. You’re right, Olivia! I never thought of it that way – it is a creepy-but-interesting way to think of us, isn’t it? 😎

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