Suzanne Briet, What is Documentation? (Qu'est-ce que la documentation?)

This site now links to the entire translation of Briet’s book (translated by Ronald E. Day (Indiana University) and Laurent Martinet (Paris), with Hermina Anghelescu (Wayne State University)) and to the preface and commentary on that text, as well as to Michael Buckland’s biography of Briet and his selected bibliography of her works, as printed in What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text (Scarecrow Press, 2006). 

We are grateful to the heirs of Suzanne Briet, Monsieur Jean-Paul Etienne and Monsieur Pascal Etienne, who very generously gave us permission to publish the translation, and we are grateful to Scarecrow Press for publishing the translation and accompanying materials and for giving us copyright on the translation so that we could make it available on the Internet.

Thanks to Laurent Martinet and by permission of Briet’s heirs, a link to a pdf file of the original French text is now also given, below.


English translation, commentary, biography, and bibliography:


Brief biography of Suzanne Briet:

Suzanne Briet, What is Documentation? is documentation.pdf


Selected bibliography of the works of Suzanne Briet (continually updated):


The original French text of Qu’est-ce que la documentation?:



Preface to the online translation

Suzanne Briet ("Madame Documentation") was an important French Documentalist just before and following the Second World War. Though other documentalists preceded her, Briet was unique in so strongly attributing to documentation and to documentary signs a cultural origin and a social function.  Her work differed from that of the founder of European Documentation, Paul Otlet’s, in that Briet understood documentation in terms of networks of production and in terms of cultures of production and expression.  In Briet’s book we find a description of the end of the “culture of the book,” and with this we see the transformation of libraries into documentation centers.  Today, her book suggests a foreshadowing and a reinterpretation of what we call “digital libraries.”

In the very first page of What is Documentation?, Briet performs the radical gesture of characterizing documents in terms of being indexical signs. In this, she was adopting an argument that was present in the cultural air, as she states, through "linguists and philosophers," surely in the form of semiotics, and she foreshadows what would appear fifty years later as Actor Network Theory.  Throughout What is Documentation?, Briet argues for a socially informed and culturally mediated understanding of documents and documentation institutions.  She proposes that documentalists must be proactive agents in document creation and that they must be adaptive to new “rhythms” produced by new technologies.  In these manners, she challenges traditional notions of librarianship and libraries, information professionals, and positivist concepts of information.

It is our hope that this translation will bring to the English speaking world some of the richness of Briet's work and of other similar works of this period. Beginning with her opening salvo, Briet's work mixes pedantic "practical" arguments with stunning "theoretical" claims about the relationship of documentation and culture. This rhetorical form makes her work all the more interesting in that it shows the deep intermeshing of documentation and culture in modern societies.  Her work is of interest to not only specialists in documentation and information science, but to cultural historians and cultural theorists.


Further articles and books discussing Briet's work can be found at: (Michael Buckland’s Suzanne Briet page) (with photos of Briet).

--Fayet-Scribe, S.  Histoire de la documentation en France: culture, science et technologie de l’information: 1895-1937 (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2000).

--Day, R.  The modern invention of information: discourse, history, and power (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001).


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