Information and its physical representations

In response to:

Svenonius, Elaine. (2000) “The intellectual foundation of information organization.” Cambridge: MIT Press. Chapter 1.


Buckland, Michael K. (1997) “What Is a ”document”?.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48(9): 804-809.

Svenonius gives a general history of development of information organizing systems with a number of key persons’ contributions to modern theory and practice of organization. Hopefully, remembering the names and specific contributions of these people will not be immediately significant, as it is unlikely that I will be able to do so from this cursory introduction. However, it is a valuable contribution to building a personal understanding of organizational theory – philosophy even, though I wasn’t expecting to encounter that term here. Of note, the theory we are tracing goes back less than two centuries (unless I have my date interpretations wrong, always a possibility whenI am faced with “…in the nineteenth century…” and then converting that to 1800). Obviously, organization systems are far older than that – no library of any size would be possible without a means of organizing the information contained there. Rather, that the theories of organization – even the definitions of what is meant by “information” and “document” – are of recent development.

The meaning of “information” is combed over fairly well in the Human Information Interaction course, so I am comfortable with my understanding of the term, but I appreciated having a further discussion of the meaning of “document” through the Buckland article. Considering the possibility that an antelope in a zoo can be called a document (though not an antelope wild on the African plains) expands the understanding of this term considerably. The entire article had me thinking about the nature of documentation and indigenous cultures – petroglyphs as documents, for example. In particular, can oral histories be described as documents? They don’t have a physical form, but they do fall within the domain of information systems as described by Svenonius. Oral histories/stories are created by humans, recorded, and certainly deemed worthy of being preserved. Of course, we are doubtful to ever need to organize a collection of oral stories according to the principles and practicies learned in this class, but the question does have some relation to digital documents. Both have a greater degree of fluidity, as pertains to the possibility/probibility of information content being changed in some way over time. Is there a fundimental difference between information encoded in human memory (stipulating that it is recorded in some semi-perminent form across several brains, persistent over time) and information encoded in computer memory? Practically, yes, there probably is, but theoretically perhaps there is not.

Points of confusion with the text:

  • I don’t understand what Svenonius means when she says that the principle of verifiability (logical positivism)  is a linguistic principle. There is no elaboration, and (bad source), there is no quick answer to be found on the wikipedia entry for logical positivism.
  • I was having trouble grasping the explanation of information theory in Svenonius. Perhaps I was getting tired at the time that I read it, but I was failing to get any significance out of the statement that the the amount of information in a message is in a relationship to the likelihood that the information will appear “within the ensemble of all messages of the same length derivable from a given set of symbols.” I don’t understand what it means, I don’t understand how it is important, or even if it is particularly important to our discussion.

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