ASSOCIATES (2008, November, v. 15, no. 2)


Bear Thoughts #10: Briet’s Antelope

exner.gifFrank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University


What we call information science started out in Europe as the Documentation Movement (Day, 2001). These studies were picked up in the U.S. by the Special Libraries Association (SLA) and the American Documentation Institute (ADI now ASIS&T). Thus began the war between Library Science and Information Science. Since I have tentacles in both sides of our field (yes, I am an octopus), I would like to take you on a trip to the dark side for this column.

In 1951, Suzanne Briet (aka Madame Documentation) published Qu’est-ce que la documentation (What is Documentation?) which begins, “A document is evidence in support of a fact.” (Briet, 1951). Then she says that a document is “any physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded, intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon.” One of her most intriguing examples is an antelope that transforms from an individual member of a herd into information.

The next section of this column will tell my version of Antelope’s story, and then I will consider what we may learn from the tale (or, in this case, the tail).


Once upon a time Antelope wandered the lush savannah of Africa with the rest of his herd. All day he enjoyed the warm sun on his back, the plentiful and tasty grass for eating, and the companionship of his numerous friends. At the same time, as a herd protector, he was constantly on the lookout for predators and other dangers (such as storms).

One day (everything happens either one day or one night) Antelope wasn’t as observant as usual; maybe he had a cold or maybe he was getting old. In any case, an odd looking animal held up what looked like a stick. Antelope felt a stinging pain in his shoulder, then the brilliant day faded and Antelope was dead. As was the way of Antelope’s herd, he was mourned and left to the blessed gatherers.

Before the gatherers arrived, the men who had been sent by American museums to gather specimens for display collected Antelope’s body and shipped it to their home. When the body arrived at its new housing (not its home, never its home), the museum’s taxidermist and other staff used Antelope’s preserved body as an example of his species by placing it in a glass case with a brass plaque telling the name of Antelope’s species (as determined by human biologists, of course), where it lived, what it ate, and whatever was thought to be of interest to the people who might visit the museum.

What has this to do with documents or, more generally, information? Antelope’s is a story of transition from individual to document. As Antelope roamed from day to day, protecting his herd, he was an individual with a name proffered by his friends. In the museum’s display case, his body became a document, an example of a type with a name proffered by humans with no involvement with Antelope’s life.


According to Buckland (1997), Briet was using the fate of Antelope as an example of a category of information that is based on real things (what cataloguers call realia). Buckland (1997) considers the following objects and declares them to be documents or not:

In other words, something used as an example of its type is reality-based information (realia).


Buckland (1997) says that reality-based information has four characteristics:

Reality-based information has materiality because it can only include physical objects and physical signs. A reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven on tape is reality-based information, but a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven in a library’s auditorium is not reality-based information. (It is information, just not reality-based.)

Reality-based information has intentionality because the object is to be treated as evidence. A book in your library’s collection is reality-based information because it is supposed to be evidence of the author’s ideas. A bound copy of The Jaberwocky, on the other hand, is not reality-based information, because a nonsense poem is not intended as evidence of anything (unless the question is about how to write nonsense verse).

Reality-based information has to be processed because the original object has to be made into one or more documents. Antelope became a document when he was processed by the museum’s taxidermist and the rest of the staff.

And finally, there is phenomenological position. In other words, the object is perceived to be a document. I wrote about information in the world that I called Environmental Information in “Bear Thoughts #3” (Exner, Little Bear, 2006). This is not Briet’s reality-based information (as interpreted by Buckland [1997] or Day [2001]) because a tree-trunk’s rings or a combined lightening thunder pair are not seen as a document even though they offer information to the observer.


For me, intrinsic interest is the first meaning of Briet’s Antelope. Library workers (at least those that really like it) are the kind of people who love learning. They define lifelong learners. I had never considered the difference between an animal in the wild and that same animal (or at least its processed presentation). Now I have a new tool of analysis, and that is always a good thing.

The second way Briet’s antelope makes my life richer is that it broadens the definition of a document. Like anyone who spends a large part of their lives in a library, I know about books (hardbacks and paperbacks, fiction and nonfiction), CDs, DVDs, and family histories. But I hadn’t looked at the contents of museums as documents before.

Clearly there are many documentary sources that I may be able to use to assist patrons with information needs. Maybe I could build realia collections if my library serves special users (children’s departments often have puppet collections and I know of one school for special students that has a small (but cataloged) flock of sheep).

Finally, I am able to value individuals more. Thinking of the processed and displayed antelope as a document (when I am in the museum) forces me to think of Antelope when he was with his herd, and that expands my world. And the larger my world is, the larger a world I can offer my patrons.


Bear Thoughts #10 has looked at the difference between things in nature and documents (including how natural objects become documents). I hope it has given you something to think about and that you let me know about those musings at E-See you next March.


Briet, S. (1951). Qu’est-ce que la documentation Translated by Ron Day. Scarecrow Press, 2006

Buckland, M.K. (1997). What is a “document”?
  (viewed November 2, 2008)

Day, R.E. (2001). The Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, and Power. Carbondale, IL;
  Southern Illinois University Press)

Exner, Litle Bear, F. (2006). “Bear Thoughts #3 — Environmental Information”. Associates (2006, July,
  v. 13, no. 1). (viewed 11/2/08)