I recently re-read a book from David M. Levy from 2001 entitled, Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age to re-check it for some quotes and citations. The book retains its original flavor of keen insight with a general overall sense of disappointment that more of the mark could have been hit.
The first contribution of the book is to provide insight on what exactly is a document. Like many common and prosaic words, the idea of what constitutes a document proves to be more than a little challenging. As Levy says, the word document is often:
. . . used to designate the kinds of materials that have traditionally appeared on paper, such as legal contracts (e.g., wills) and identity papers (e.g., passports). This is much narrower that the use I intend, which is broad enough to include not only things written on paper but videotapes, films, audiotapes, and all manner of digital materials, including text files, spreadsheets, and Web pages.
(Here are a couple of definitional challenges. On the one hand, an entire paper document can be reproduced as a single Web page or split into numerous parts and therefore many Web pages. Alternatively, an encyclopedia could be interpreted as a single document in one case, or each of its split-out articles as separate documents in their own right.)
Levy illustrates the real role of a document as an artifact of historical fixity by the case of the lowly sales receipt, dozens of which pepper our daily lives and go without notice. The paper receipt most often contains information on the amount, location, for what and time of the transaction, say for buying a deli sandwich. But through the Middle Ages and into the 1700s, witnesses (wit, to know) were required to vouch (act as a witness) that any economic transaction had indeed taken place. In other words, a simple and taken-for-granted paper document such as the sales receipt (or voucher) was a key enabler in oiling the wheels of commerce. A simple slip of paper replaces the hassle and expense of a physical witness.
Other documents, of course, enabled coordination of train schedules, ledger accounting and other economic benefits, plus, also of course, the spreading of ideas and knowledge, fiction and non-fiction. Levy tells similar stories regarding the emergence of greeting cards, post cards and the postal service.
Levy works best when he attempts to fulfill his stated aim of placing documents within their own cultural time and place. The story is thus anecdotal and diverse from Woody Allen's Annie Hall to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The result is this book is a surprisingly literal treatment given the author's doctoral background and then professorship in information science.
While attempts are made to relate this material to information and library science, indeed to the emergence of the digital age, the book ends up feeling fragmented and scattered, lacking an articulated thesis. For example, no mention whatsoever is made of Elizabeth Eisenstein's 1979 classic book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, which postulated the role of written documents in the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, among other historical epochs. The concluding chapters ramble from earthquakes to car advertising to "existential/religious perspectives." After a promising start, I felt like the air had been let out of the balloon by book's end.
I obviously enjoyed this book enough to read it again, and I recommend it to others mostly because of its episodic keen insights. Finally, I should note that any book with documents as its subject should take the time to include an index — shame, shame.