Say “document” and most people will conjure something grand, like the Declaration of Independence or Magna Carta, or something mundane, like their birth certificate or an invoice. Now, tell people you’ve written a book on the cultural and social impacts of historic documents, and reactions will largely fall along these lines: “Really? What’s your favorite one?” Or, “What’s the deal with that passage on slavery that got deleted from the Declaration, how did that happen?”
You’ll also get the inevitable questions: “Does that include digital stuff? What’s happening with digital documents anyway?” What indeed. Those questions hit at some fundamental if not existential questions facing both publishers and libraries today: What’s the future of the document? And what’s the document of the future?
The First Author
Around 2300 B.C.E., in the Sumerian city of Ur, a young woman was made high priestess by her usurping emperor father Sargon and became known as Enheduanna. We know this because she named herself in the text of a hymn she wrote, now known as the Exaltation of Inanna. Enheduanna is often credited as the first known author: her hymn existed centuries before the Code of Hammurabi, The Book of the Dead, the I Ching, or the Bible. And it remained in use for several centuries, taking advantage, like so many pivotal developments throughout history, of the technology of the day—in this case, baked clay and cuneiform.
Now, some 200 generations after Enheduanna, forms completely unknown only one generation ago have become enmeshed in our culture: the wiki, the app, the tweet, the friend request. So much of our contemporary world was constructed on the basis of analog media that required physical proximity to use and transportation to get to. And the implications of such swift changes in how we communicate and document our lives today, in the digital age, are vast.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the fundamental nature of documents. Our history, as individuals and as societies and cultures, is inextricably and necessarily intertwined with documenting things. Documents provide order and structure to the commonplace parts of our lives. They are always produced within cultural, technological, and social contexts. And in some cases, documents take on great significance for generations to come, sometimes in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
When it comes to the future of documents, about the only thing we can be fairly certain about is that, whatever the format, there will be another, and another, and another, and that they will have multiple (if not-always-well-known) stories behind them. And despite ever more technologies in play, it is important to remember that there are people behind these stories, whether they are the creators or the subjects of these documents.
The Human Element
At a time when technology is challenging, well, just about everything, I wrote my book, Documents That Changed the World (Rowman & Littlefield), to shine a light on the stories and the people behind some of the most impactful documents in history—and not just the documents that everybody thinks of.
The lesser-known stories are also revealing, such as the lifelong saga behind Noah Webster’s highly nationalistic dictionary, or the fantastic origin story of the Book of Mormon, or the indulgences Gutenberg printed to keep the doors open before the Bible was finished (and which led almost directly to the Protestant Reformation). Leonardo of Pisa explained a novel system of counting and figuring, and brought Arabic numerals and the zero from India to the West. Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, so often at odds but united in an effort to revolutionize how we know what we know, wound up creating Wikipedia by accident.
There are also those things that don’t really feel like documents but are: the AIDS Quilt, the Riot Act (which had to be read out loud to work), and the “We Can Do It!” poster, which everybody knows is Rosie the Riveter calling women to work in the factories—except it’s not, and she wasn’t.
Many people were just trying to bring order and structure to their corners of the world: Henry Martyn Robert, with his Rules of Order; Fannie Farmer, introducing level measurements and standardization to recipes; Ronald Fisher offhandedly articulating what is now the iron rule of statistical significance; the creators of the IQ test, the Internet Protocol, or the scholarly journal. Evil lurks here as well, in the shadows of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, or Joseph McCarthy’s nonexistent “list,” which ruined so many lives. So, too, does hope for the future, as found in Alfred Nobel’s will, or the Nineteenth Amendment.
Then there were ordinary people doing ordinary things that would lead to some extraordinary documents—Abraham Zapruder starting his movie camera, Catherine Brewer receiving the first college diploma ever awarded to a woman, Francis Scott Key scratching out song lyrics, Rose Mary Woods transcribing a White House tape recording, a physician in Hawaii signing an unremarkable birth certificate. It makes you wonder: what will that next profoundly important document be?
The Future Is Yet to Be Written
We know this much: there will, inevitably, be future documents of great importance that will take their place with the myriad others going back decades, centuries, and millennia. And though it’s impossible to speculate with any certainty, there are a few things we can at least surmise.
For example, the next important document might already have been created and is simply waiting to be discovered, whether moldering away in an archive, library, or attic somewhere, or on someone’s phone, or in the cloud. If it’s yet to be created, it is likely that document will be digital, perhaps never reaching any analog format, always and forever streaming or cloud based, perhaps unable ever to be represented in tangible form. It could be something generic and traditional, like a contract or a law, a treaty, or a license. It could be something exotic and not yet conceived. It’s even possible that it will be machine-generated. So much that records or documents our lives today is done automatically or algorithmically, it seems almost inevitable that sooner or later some document that is not the direct product of human minds will have a profound effect on our society.
For publishers and libraries, much of the conversation today revolves around formats: print versus digital, for example. But the most interesting questions run deeper. How will social media continue to impact our relationships, politics, businesses, and the institutions that have sustained us for so long, including publishers, libraries, newspapers, and other media? What effects will new economic and technological models have on scholarly communication and thus on education and research? How might digital media and electronic texts impact our democracy, our legal system, our notions of literacy, even our brains and the ways we think?
In writing this book, one thing became clear to me. The forms, purposes, and functions of documents will evolve, as they always have, but we will nonetheless still have them, and have to have them. Whatever form it may take, the document of the future will, as its ancestors did, mark the present and past, and help to shape our societies and institutions. And the stories behind those documents will live on as well.
Joseph Janes is associate professor at the University of Washington Information School and the author of Documents That Changed the Way We Live (Rowman & Littlefield).