The term document has multiple meanings in ordinary language and in scholarship. WordNet
WordNet is a lexical database for the English language. It groups English words into sets of synonyms called synsets, provides short, general definitions, and records the various semantic relations between these synonym sets...

 3.1. lists four meanings (October 2011):
  • document, written document, papers (writing that provides information (especially information of an official nature))
  • document (anything serving as a representation of a person's thinking by means of symbolic marks)
  • document (a written account of ownership or obligation)
  • text file, document ((computer science) a computer file that contains text (and possibly formatting instructions) using seven-bit ASCII characters).

In Library and information science
Library and information science
Library and information science is a merging of the two fields library science and information science...

 and in documentation science
Documentation science
-Introduction:Documentation science, documentation studies or just documentation is a field of study and a profession founded by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine . Professionals educated in this field are termed documentalists...

 is "document" considered a basic theoretical construct. It is everything which may be preserved or represented in order to serve as evidence for some purpose. The classical example provided by Suzanne Briet
Suzanne Briet
Renée-Marie-Hélène-Suzanne Briet , known as "Madame Documentation," was a librarian, author, historian, poet, and visionary best known for her treatise Qu'est-ce que la documentation? , a foundational text in the modern study of information science...

 is an antelope
Antelope is a term referring to many even-toed ungulate species indigenous to various regions in Africa and Eurasia. Antelopes comprise a miscellaneous group within the family Bovidae, encompassing those old-world species that are neither cattle, sheep, buffalo, bison, nor goats...

: "An antelope running wild on the plains of Africa should not be considered a document, she rules. But if it were to be captured, taken to a zoo and made an object of study, it has been made into a document. It has become physical evidence being used by those who study it. Indeed, scholarly articles written about the antelope are secondary documents, since the antelope itself is the primary document." (Quoted from Buckland, 1998 ). (This view has been seen as an early expression of what now is known as actor–network theory).

That documents cannot be defined by their transmission medium
Transmission medium
A transmission medium is a material substance that can propagate energy waves...

 (such as paper) is evident because of the existence of electronic document
Electronic document
An electronic document is any electronic media content that are intended to be used in either an electronic form or as printed output....


What is a document?

The concept of document has been defined as “any concrete or symbolic indication, preserved or recorded, for reconstructing or for proving a phenomenon, whether physical or mental" (Briet, 1951, 7; here quoted from Buckland, 1991).

A much cited article asked "what is a document" and concluded this way: “The evolving notion of ‘‘document’’ among Otlet
Paul Otlet
Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet was an author, entrepreneur, visionary, lawyer and peace activist; he is one of several people who have been considered the father of information science, a field he called "documentation". Otlet created the Universal Decimal Classification, one of the most prominent...

, Briet
Suzanne Briet
Renée-Marie-Hélène-Suzanne Briet , known as "Madame Documentation," was a librarian, author, historian, poet, and visionary best known for her treatise Qu'est-ce que la documentation? , a foundational text in the modern study of information science...

, Schürmeyer
Walter Schürmeyer
Walter Schürmeyer was a Librarian at the Bibliothek für Kunst und Technik Frankfurt.Schürmeyer, Walter: Aufgaben und Methoden der Dokumentation. In: Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen 52 , S. 533 - 543...

, and the other documentalist
Documentalist is a kind of librarian, trained in documentation science and specializing in assisting researchers in their search for scientific and technical documentation...

s increasingly emphasized whatever functioned as a document rather than traditional physical forms of documents. The shift to digital technology would seem to make this distinction even more important. Levy
David M Levy
David Levy is a Professor at University of Washington, Information School.-Biography:David Levy holds a PhD from Stanford University in computer science and a Diploma in calligraphy and bookbinding from the Roehampton Institute, London...

’s thoughtful analyses have shown that an emphasis on the technology of digital documents has impeded our understanding of digital documents as documents (e.g., Levy, 1994) . A conventional document, such as a mail message or a technical report, exists physically in digital technology as a string of bits, but so does everything else in a digital environment.

Types of documents

Documents are sometimes classified as secret
Classified information
Classified information is sensitive information to which access is restricted by law or regulation to particular groups of persons. A formal security clearance is required to handle classified documents or access classified data. The clearance process requires a satisfactory background investigation...

, private
Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively...

 or public. They may also be described as a draft
Draft document
Drafting is the preliminary stage of a written work in which the author begins to develop a more cohesive product. A also describes the product the writer creates in the initial stages of the writing process.In the drafting stage, the author:...

 or proof
Proofreading is the reading of a galley proof or computer monitor to detect and correct production-errors of text or art. Proofreaders are expected to be consistently accurate by default because they occupy the last stage of typographic production before publication.-Traditional method:A proof is...

. When a document is copied
Copying is the duplication of information or an artifact based only on an instance of that information or artifact, and not using the process that originally generated it. With analog forms of information, copying is only possible to a limited degree of accuracy, which depends on the quality of the...

, the source is referred to as the original
Originality is the aspect of created or invented works by as being new or novel, and thus can be distinguished from reproductions, clones, forgeries, or derivative works....


There are accepted standards for specific applications in various fields, such as:
  • a7a: thesis
    A dissertation or thesis is a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author's research and findings...

    , dissertation, paper
    Academic publishing
    Academic publishing describes the subfield of publishing which distributes academic research and scholarship. Most academic work is published in journal article, book or thesis form. The part of academic written output that is not formally published but merely printed up or posted is often called...

    , journal
    __FORCETOC__A journal has several related meanings:* a daily record of events or business; a private journal is usually referred to as a diary....

  • Business and accounting: Invoice
    An invoice or bill is a commercial document issued by a seller to the buyer, indicating the products, quantities, and agreed prices for products or services the seller has provided the buyer. An invoice indicates the buyer must pay the seller, according to the payment terms...

    , quote
    Financial quote
    A financial quotation refers to specific market data relating to a security or commodity. While the term quote specifically refers to the bid price or ask price of an instrument, it may be more generically used to relate to the last price which the security traded at...

    , RFP, Proposal
    Proposal or The Proposal may refer to:* Proposal * Proposals , a play by Neil Simon*"The Proposal" , one of three episodes from the television show Dynasty...

    , Contract
    A contract is an agreement entered into by two parties or more with the intention of creating a legal obligation, which may have elements in writing. Contracts can be made orally. The remedy for breach of contract can be "damages" or compensation of money. In equity, the remedy can be specific...

    , Packing slip
    Packing slip
    A shipping list, packing list, waybill, packing slip , is a shipping document that accompanies delivery packages, usually inside an attached shipping pouch or inside the package itself...

    , Manifest
    Manifest has different meanings. It may refer to the following:Arts* Manifest , the Melbourne Anime FestivalBusiness* Manifest Limited, the UK marketing companyComputing...

    , Report
    A report is a textual work made with the specific intention of relaying information or recounting certain events in a widely presentable form....

     detailed & summary, Spread sheet, MSDS, Waybill
    A waybill or consignment note is a document issued by a carrier giving details and instructions relating to the shipment of a consignment of goods. Typically it will show the names of the consignor and consignee, the point of origin of the consignment, its destination, route, and method of...

    , Bill of Lading
    Bill of lading
    A bill of lading is a document issued by a carrier to a shipper, acknowledging that specified goods have been received on board as cargo for conveyance to a named place for delivery to the consignee who is usually identified...

     (BOL), Statement
    Statement may refer to:* A kind of expression in language *Statement , declarative sentence that is either true or false*Statement , the smallest standalone element of an imperative programming language...

    , Nondisclosure agreement (NDA) or sometimes referred to as; Mutual nondisclosure agreement (MNDA)
  • Law and politics: summons
    Legally, a summons is a legal document issued by a court or by an administrative agency of government for various purposes.-Judicial summons:...

    , certificate
    Certificate may refer to:* Public key certificate, an electronic document used in cryptography* Certificate of deposit, or CD, a financial product commonly offered to consumers by banks, thrift institutions, and credit unions...

    , license
    The verb license or grant licence means to give permission. The noun license or licence refers to that permission as well as to the document recording that permission.A license may be granted by a party to another party as an element of an agreement...

    , gazette
    A gazette is a public journal, a newspaper of record, or simply a newspaper.In English- and French-speaking countries, newspaper publishers have applied the name Gazette since the 17th century; today, numerous weekly and daily newspapers bear the name The Gazette.Gazette is a loanword from the...

  • Government and industry: white paper
    White paper
    A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that helps solve a problem. White papers are used to educate readers and help people make decisions, and are often requested and used in politics, policy, business, and technical fields. In commercial use, the term has also come to refer to...

  • Media and marketing: brief
    Brief or briefs may refer to:* A firefox extension for RSS* A letter* A papal letter less formal than a bull, sealed with the pope's signet ring or stamped with the device borne on this ring...

    , mock-up, script
    Script may refer to:Computing* Script , a small program written for a command interpreter or another scripting language* script , a tool that records a tty session* SCRIPT/VS, a text formatting language developed at IBM...

Such standard documents can be created based on a template
Template (word processing)
The term template, when used in the context of word processing software,refers to a sample "fill-in-the-blank" document that can be completed either by handor through an automated iterative process, such as with a software assistant. Once...


Developing documents

The page layout
Page layout
Page layout is the part of graphic design that deals in the arrangement and style treatment of elements on a page.- History and development :...

 of a document is the manner in which information is graphically arranged in the document space (e.g., on a page). If the appearance of the document is of concern, page layout is generally the responsibility of a graphic design
Graphic design
Graphic design is a creative process – most often involving a client and a designer and usually completed in conjunction with producers of form – undertaken in order to convey a specific message to a targeted audience...

er. Typography
Typography is the art and technique of arranging type in order to make language visible. The arrangement of type involves the selection of typefaces, point size, line length, leading , adjusting the spaces between groups of letters and adjusting the space between pairs of letters...

 deals with the design of letter and symbol forms, as well as their physical arrangement in the document (see typesetting
Typesetting is the composition of text by means of types.Typesetting requires the prior process of designing a font and storing it in some manner...

). Information design
Information design
Information design is the skill and practice of preparing information so people can use it with efficiency and effectiveness. Where the data is complex or unstructured, a visual representation can express its meaning more clearly to the viewer....

 focuses on the effective communication of information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

, especially in industrial documents and public sign
A sign is something that implies a connection between itself and its object. A natural sign bears a causal relation to its object—for instance, thunder is a sign of storm. A conventional sign signifies by agreement, as a full stop signifies the end of a sentence...

s. Simple text documents may not require a visual design and may be handled by an author
An author is broadly defined as "the person who originates or gives existence to anything" and that authorship determines responsibility for what is created. Narrowly defined, an author is the originator of any written work.-Legal significance:...

, clerk
Data entry clerk
A data entry clerk, sometimes called a typist, is a member of staff employed to type data into a database using a keyboard. The keyboards used can often have specialist keys and multiple colours to help them in the task and speed up the work.-Examples:...

 or transcriber
Transcriber is a tool for the transcription and annotation of speech signals for linguistic research. It supports multiple hierarchical layers of segmentation, named entity annotation, speaker lists, topic lists, and overlapping speakers. Two views of the sound pressure waveform at different...

. Forms
Form (document)
A form is a document with spaces in which to write or select, for a series of documents with similar contents. The documents usually have the printed parts in common, possibly except for a serial number...

 may require a visual design for the initial fields, but not to fill out the forms.


Traditionally, the medium
Material is anything made of matter, constituted of one or more substances. Wood, cement, hydrogen, air and water are all examples of materials. Sometimes the term "material" is used more narrowly to refer to substances or components with certain physical properties that are used as inputs to...

 of a document was paper
Paper is a thin material mainly used for writing upon, printing upon, drawing or for packaging. It is produced by pressing together moist fibers, typically cellulose pulp derived from wood, rags or grasses, and drying them into flexible sheets....

 and the information was applied to it as ink
Ink is a liquid or paste that contains pigments and/or dyes and is used to color a surface to produce an image, text, or design. Ink is used for drawing and/or writing with a pen, brush, or quill...

, either by hand (to make a hand-written document) or by a mechanical process (such as a printing press
Printing press
A printing press is a device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium , thereby transferring the ink...

 or, more recently, a laser printer
Laser printer
A laser printer is a common type of computer printer that rapidly produces high quality text and graphics on plain paper. As with digital photocopiers and multifunction printers , laser printers employ a xerographic printing process, but differ from analog photocopiers in that the image is produced...


Through time, documents have also been written with ink on papyrus
Papyrus is a thick paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge that was once abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt....

 (starting in ancient Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

) or parchment
Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin, often split. Its most common use was as a material for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is limed but not tanned; therefore, it is very...

; scratched as runes on stone using a sharp apparatus; stamped or cut into clay
Clay is a general term including many combinations of one or more clay minerals with traces of metal oxides and organic matter. Geologic clay deposits are mostly composed of phyllosilicate minerals containing variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure.- Formation :Clay minerals...

 and then baked to make clay tablet
Clay tablet
In the Ancient Near East, clay tablets were used as a writing medium, especially for writing in cuneiform, throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age....

s (e.g., in the Sumer
Sumer was a civilization and historical region in southern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age....

ian and other Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a toponym for the area of the Tigris–Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the...

n civilisations). The paper, papyrus or parchment might be rolled up as a scroll
Scroll (parchment)
A scroll is a roll of papyrus, parchment, or paper which has been written, drawn or painted upon for the purpose of transmitting information or using as a decoration.-Structure:...

 or cut into sheets and bound
Bookbinding is the process of physically assembling a book from a number of folded or unfolded sheets of paper or other material. It usually involves attaching covers to the resulting text-block.-Origins of the book:...

 into a book
A book is a set or collection of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of hot lava, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf or leaflet, and each side of a leaf is called a page...

. Today short documents might also consist of sheets of paper stapled
Staple (fastener)
A staple is a type of two-pronged fastener, usually metal, used for joining or binding materials together. Large staples might be used with a hammer or staple gun for masonry, roofing, corrugated boxes and other heavy-duty uses...


Modern electronic means of storing and displaying documents include:
  • desktop computer
    Desktop computer
    A desktop computer is a personal computer in a form intended for regular use at a single location, as opposed to a mobile laptop or portable computer. Early desktop computers are designed to lay flat on the desk, while modern towers stand upright...

     and monitor
    Computer display
    A monitor or display is an electronic visual display for computers. The monitor comprises the display device, circuitry, and an enclosure...

     (or laptop
    A laptop, also called a notebook, is a personal computer for mobile use. A laptop integrates most of the typical components of a desktop computer, including a display, a keyboard, a pointing device and speakers into a single unit...

    , tablet PC
    Tablet computer
    A tablet computer, or simply tablet, is a complete mobile computer, larger than a mobile phone or personal digital assistant, integrated into a flat touch screen and primarily operated by touching the screen...

    , etc.); optionally with a printer
    Computer printer
    In computing, a printer is a peripheral which produces a text or graphics of documents stored in electronic form, usually on physical print media such as paper or transparencies. Many printers are primarily used as local peripherals, and are attached by a printer cable or, in most new printers, a...

     to obtain a hard copy
    Hard copy
    In information handling, a hard copy is a permanent reproduction, or copy, in the form of a physical object, of any media suitable for direct use by a person , of displayed or transmitted data...

  • Personal digital assistant
    Personal digital assistant
    A personal digital assistant , also known as a palmtop computer, or personal data assistant, is a mobile device that functions as a personal information manager. Current PDAs often have the ability to connect to the Internet...

  • dedicated e-book device
    E-book device
    An e-book reader is a portable electronic device that is designed primarily for the purpose of reading digital books and periodicals.An e-book reader is similar in form to a tablet computer. A tablet computer typically has a faster screen capable of higher refresh rates which makes them more...

  • electronic paper
    Electronic paper
    Electronic paper, e-paper and electronic ink are a range of display technology which are designed to mimic the appearance of ordinary ink on paper. Unlike conventional backlit flat panel displays, electronic paper displays reflect light like ordinary paper...

  • information appliance
    Information appliance
    In general terms, an information appliance or information device is any machine or device that is usable for the purposes of computing, telecommunicating, reproducing, and presenting encoded information in myriad forms and applications....

  • digital audio players
  • radio
    Radio is the transmission of signals through free space by modulation of electromagnetic waves with frequencies below those of visible light. Electromagnetic radiation travels by means of oscillating electromagnetic fields that pass through the air and the vacuum of space...

     and television
    Television is a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images that can be monochrome or colored, with accompanying sound...

     service provider
    Telecommunications Service Provider
    A telecommunications service provider or TSP is a type of communications service provider that has traditionally provided telephone and similar services...

Digital documents usually have to adhere to a specific file format
File format
A file format is a particular way that information is encoded for storage in a computer file.Since a disk drive, or indeed any computer storage, can store only bits, the computer must have some way of converting information to 0s and 1s and vice-versa. There are different kinds of formats for...

 in order to be useful.

In law

Documents in all forms are frequently found to be material evidence
Evidence in its broadest sense includes everything that is used to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion. Giving or procuring evidence is the process of using those things that are either presumed to be true, or were themselves proven via evidence, to demonstrate an assertion's truth...

 in criminal and civil proceedings. The forensic analysis of such a document falls under the scope of questioned document examination
Questioned document examination
Questioned document examination is the forensic science discipline pertaining to documents that are in dispute in a court of law...

. For the purpose of cataloging and managing the large number of documents that may be produced in the course of a law suit, Bates numbering
Bates numbering
Bates numbering is used in the legal, medical, and business fields to place identifying numbers and/or date/time-marks on images and documents as they are scanned or processed...

 is often applied to all documents so that each document has a unique, aribitrary identifying number.

See also

Related concepts:
  • Data storage device
    Data storage device
    thumb|200px|right|A reel-to-reel tape recorder .The magnetic tape is a data storage medium. The recorder is data storage equipment using a portable medium to store the data....

    : to store documents.
  • Document automation
    Document automation
    Document automation is the design of systems and workflow that assist in the creation of electronic documents. These include logic based systems that use segments of pre-existing text and/or data to assemble a new document. This process is increasingly used within certain industries to assemble...

  • Document file format
    Document file format
    A document file format is a text or binary file format for storing documents on a storage media, especially for use by computers.There currently exist a multitude of incompatible document file formats....

    : a standard used for represent the document into a storage device.
  • Media type
    Internet media type
    An Internet media type, originally called a MIME type after MIME and sometimes a Content-type after the name of a header in several protocols whose value is such a type, is a two-part identifier for file formats on the Internet.The identifiers were originally defined in RFC 2046 for use in email...

    : document parts (text block, illustration, audio sample, etc.) can use different media types to store and "display" it.
  • Internet of Things
    Internet of Things
    The Internet of Things refers to uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure. The term Internet of Things was first used by Kevin Ashton in 1999. The concept of the Internet of Things first became popular through the Auto-ID Center and related...

  • Realia (library science)
    Realia (library science)
    In library classification systems, the term realia refers to three-dimensional objects from real life such as coins, tools, and textiles, that do not easily fit into the orderly categories of printed material...

  • Subject (documents)
    Subject (documents)
    In library and information science documents are classified and searched by subject - as well as by other attributes such as author, genre and document type. This makes "subject" a fundamental term in this field. Library and information specialists assign subject labels to documents to make them...

Other related articles:
  • Historical document
    Historical document
    Historical documents are documents that contain important information about a person, place, or event.Most famous historical documents are either laws, accounts of battles , or the exploits of the powerful...

  • Desktop publishing
    Desktop publishing
    Desktop publishing is the creation of documents using page layout software on a personal computer.The term has been used for publishing at all levels, from small-circulation documents such as local newsletters to books, magazines and newspapers...

  • Word processor
    Word processor
    A word processor is a computer application used for the production of any sort of printable material....

  • Documentary film
    Documentary film
    Documentary films constitute a broad category of nonfictional motion pictures intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record...

  • Documentation science
    Documentation science
    -Introduction:Documentation science, documentation studies or just documentation is a field of study and a profession founded by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine . Professionals educated in this field are termed documentalists...

Further reading

  • Briet, S. (1951). Qu'est-ce que la documentation? Paris: Documentaires Industrielles et Techniques.

  • Buckland, M. (1991). Information and information systems. New York: Greenwood Press.

  • Frohmann, Bernd (2009). Revisiting "what is a document?" , Journal of Documentation, 65(2), 291-303.

  • Hjerppe, R. (1994). A framework for the description of generalized documents. Advances in Knowledge Organization, 4, 173-180.

  • Houser, L. (1986). Documents: The domain of library and information science. Library and Information Science Research, 8, 163-188.

  • Larsen, P.S. (1999). Books and bytes: Preserving documents for posterity. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(11), 1020-1027.

  • Lund, N. W. (2008). Document theory. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 43, 399-432.

  • Riles, A. (Ed.) (2006). Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

  • Schamber, L. (1996). What is a document? Rethinking the concept in uneasy times. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47, 669-671.

  • Ørom, A. (2007). The concept of information versus the concept of document. I: Document (re)turn. Contributions from a research field in transition. Ed. By Roswitha Skare, Niels Windfeld Lund & Andreas Vårheim. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. (Pp. 53-72).
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