The Future of the Document: documenting performance – Interdisciplinary Symposium 31/10/16

This post about our exploratory, interdisciplinary symposium, first appeared on, on 25/07/16. The event is intended to start a conversation between practitioners, professionals, researchers, scholars and teachers from different disciplines, who are interested in documents and documentation. Please visit this main site for further information and registration details.


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The Future of the Document: documenting performance

Symposium: Monday 31st October 2016, City University London

Organisers: Lyn Robinson & Joseph Dunne

Call for papers

One of the major concerns of library and information science (LIS) is preservation of the record of humankind. In order to preserve something for future access we need to understand what it is we are saving. LIS considers preservation and access from the viewpoint of the document. This has prompted the question: ‘what is a document?’ The answer is far from straightforward, and has been debated since the end of the 19th century, when Otlet suggested that images, works of art and sculptures could be regarded in the same way as books, journals and papers, and later, in the 1950s, Briet suggested that even an animal might be considered as a document.

It would seem the question might be ‘what is not a document?’

Technological advances have given us digitization, which has added more complexity to the issue. Physical/analogue documents can be rendered in digital format, and the digital surrogates regarded as documents in their own right.

The rapidly expanding and evolving trend towards digitization has led to a convergence of GLAM sector institutions, so that the work of libraries, galleries, archives and museums has overlapped for some years now.

This interdisciplinary symposium goes beyond coalescence within the GLAM sector, to consider documentation and preservation of performance.

Today all types of performance can simply be broadcast and made accessible to millions of people through their mediatization – be it theatre and performance art; rock concerts; political performances such as party conventions or the inauguration of the U.S. president; ritual performances such as funerals (e.g. Princess Diana’s) or papal blessings urbi et orbi; or sporting events such as the Olympic Games. A new dichotomy has emerged between live performance constituted by the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators and the autopoietic feedback loop and mediatized performance which sever the co-existence of production and reception. Mediatized performance invalidates the feedback loop.

Erika Fischer-Lichte, 2008

At some level, the event simply happens; at the same time, it cannot be defined merely as what occurs

Jill Bennett, 2012

Much work in this area has been undertaken, but often outside the LIS domain and in separate strands of the performing arts. Work in defining and documenting dance, performance, performance art and theatre has progressed in parallel, yet disparate projects, although the goals of documentation appear consistent.

This cross-disciplinary, one-day event will bring together scholars, practitioners, artists and other professionals from the fields of Library & Information Science and Theatre & Performing Arts to start a conversation, and to share ideas and theories around documentation, preservation and access for complex-documents.

Abstracts of up to 250 words are invited for 20 min presentations.

Subjects for discussion may include, but are not limited to:

  • Definitions of the document / not a document.
  • What are the definitive characteristics of performance? Can these be recorded?
  • Does the process of documentation represent the performance, or it is a surrogate/new document
  • Who owns the document, the artist or the documenter?
  • Body memory
  • Projects documenting performing arts
  • Use of technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality or mixed reality to embody the essence of performance as a document
  • Online performance platforms – What opportunities does the Web afford artists wishing to reach new audiences? How can performing arts and LIS professionals collaborate?
  • Experiments with documenting and archiving strategies has lead many artists and scholars to see these practices as creative activities in their own right. What new art forms might arise out of them? Conversely, do LIS professionals consider their practice as artistic?
  • Lexicon of practices – Is there a language barrier between the performing arts and the LIS fields? How can this be overcome? What forums can be initiated to build dialogues between the two fields? What opportunities might arise out of this collaborative effort?

Please send your abstract (along with up to a 100 word biography) to, and by 1st September 2016. Notification of acceptance will be emailed by or before 30th September 2016. When you submit your abstract, please also register for the event (free). The symposium will take place on Monday October 31st 2016. Please contact either of us if you have any questions about the symposium.


Lyn Robinson is head of Library & Information Science at City University London. She is well known as course director for the library school #citylis. She has a longstanding interest in documents and the processes of documentation.

Joseph Dunne is Research Associate at Rose Bruford College. His PhD research investigated how archiving and documentation strategies can become the genesis of site-based performance practice. Joseph’s specialisms include audience participation, performance re-enactments, cultural memory, and theatre legacies.

Venue: The symposium will take place on 31st October 2016, at City University London, Northampton Square, EC1V0HB. We regret that we are unable to pay travel expenses to speakers or participants.

Booking a place: Attendance is free, but registration is required. Anyone with an interest in understanding performance as a document, and the documentation of performance is welcome!

Programme: May be subject to change.

Sponsors: We are seeking sponsorship for our event. If you are able to contribute to costs for a sandwich lunch or drinks reception, please contact Lyn Robinson,

Waving Not Drowning

lyn's tweet feed from 29/03/16Unusually, libraries have been making the news this week. The publicity surrounding the BBC’s investigation into public library closures has generated much controversy about the – admittedly not new – phenomenon of the alleged decline of libraries and librarians.

Two responses come naturally to a provider of library/information education, concerned at the implication that we are educating students for a terminally declining profession. We can rebuke the sloppy journalism that writes of the decline of ‘libraries’ and ‘librarians’, when what is meant is the much more limited, though still important, context of the public library service in the UK. We can deplore the shallow voices that proclaim, as they have been doing for nearly two decades now, that we don’t need libraries any more, now that we have Google/Wikipedia/smartphones.

This though, isn’t really enough. Complain though we might about the limitations of reporting, and the ignorance of some commentators, we cannot ignore the dramatically changing library/information landscape, and we need to be continually reconsidering what we offer to meet changing demands. Not that we haven’t already been doing so; a post I wrote almost a year ago [Time for the Blue Whale] outlined our thinking of that time about the way library/information education needed to adapt. But, in view of the current bruhaha, it’s worth setting out how #citylis sees itself adapting to meet the challenges.

The five points here are really an elaboration of the ideas in my earlier post, not a replacement for them.

Wide horizons

We support public libraries, of course we do, and we object strongly to many of the more stupid attitudes being expressed at the moment. We cover public library issues on our courses, and will continue to do so. But only a minority of students will ever be professionally active in the public library sector. Along with many others commenting on the current controversy, we remind ourselves that the library/information sector is much bigger than this one aspect. Even if all public libraries in the country went out of business, which is unthinkable, there would still be a vibrant library profession, and a need for library education.

Wider horizons

As I pointed out in my earlier post, and as many others have reiterated, library/information skills are relevant, indeed increasingly relevant, way beyond the wider bounds of any conception of the library/information sector. Our subject is the whole communication chain of information recorded in documents. We will continue to emphasise these wider implications in our courses; both to cater for the increasing proportion of our students who do not see themselves as library/information professionals, and to help those who do prepare to support this wider application of our perspectives and skills.

We’ve been here before, but it’s different now

While it is idiotic to say that library are obsolescent because of Google and smartphones, we cannot, and do not, ignore the changes brought about by technology. We are unashamedly digital, and want all of our students to leave with a good appreciation of the possibilities of technology. For those who want it, we will be offering more opportunities for gaining skills in metadata, coding, data analysis, social media, and the like. But this has to be balanced by a continued interest in the historical core, and development of our subject; if we don’t know where we’ve come from, we can’t really understand where we are, still less where we’re going. New technologies and resources often do not bring new issues and behaviours; just a new variant on what’s gone before.

Making friends

Another thing that we have said before, but which is very relevant in thinking how library/information education can flourish in difficult times, is that we are a meta-discipline. Our concern is information and documents, but that gives us an overlap with several other disciplines. It is well-known that LIS has no unique place within the academic landscape, shown by the varied range of faculties in which the subject is placed in different universities. In our case, we overlap City University’s Schools of Technology and of Arts/Social Sciences. This could be seen a weakness, but we intend to turn it into a strength in our course provision, by involving the whole range of information interests, from performance art to robots, and from philosophy to cult media fans. Information is central to many conversations and domains.

Theory and practice

Something else we have emphasised in the past, but which will stand statement, is that we try to strike a balance between theory and practice in LIS education. If we were focused just on training our students for immediate practice, then we would rightly be concerned about the ‘decline of a profession’ headlines that we are now seeing (inaccurate though they may be). But we don’t do that. On the contrary, we focus very firmly on the body of theory, concepts and principles that will allow our students to thrive in the future information environment, however it develops and changes. That doesn’t mean that we neglect skills; on the contrary we are putting more emphasis on directly linking conceptual and skills-based materials, partly though curriculum changes and partly through addition of more optional workshops, seminars, etc.

So, it would be tempting to simply rail against those who wrongly report that all libraries are in decline, and that library/information professionals are no longer needed. But we prefer to acknowledge that, wrong-headed as many of their pronouncements are, there is a sea-change in the sector taking place. #citylis will change, and is changing, to meet the need for graduates with a thorough understanding of the world of information, and an ability to impact it. And the need for those people is increasing, not declining.

Who owns the story of the future – and what does it have to do with information?

I am always drawn to events professing to talk about the future, especially if it gives me a chance to listen to William Gibson (@greatdismal) in person, and so I was at the British Library for one of their panel discussions in the series The Future: Science and Society, earlier this week.

The other commentators were by no-means lightweights in their respective fields (writers Cory Doctorow [@doctorow] and Mark Stevenson, economist Diane Coyle and chair Jon Turney) but obviously I was not the only starry-eyed Gibson fan in the room, which was packed with the sort of people who cannot resist treating their idol to a rambling monologue on metaphysics, drawn from the random clutter of their inner psyche, during question time.

No matter – for in addition to hearing some of William Gibson’s clever, considered comments, I could not help the comforting smugness which enveloped me as it became clear that for many people in the audience, “the future” was all about information – (ha!). Mark Stevenson reminded us that “.. it is not called the information society for nothing..”.

Ostensibly, the discussion was to draw out ideas from current scientific research on what our future may look like – thus the mix of science/sci-fi writers on the panel. Although Mark Stevenson mentioned he had been talking to people at IBM and MIT who were engaged in “amazing stuff”, I did not catch what this might be. I did count four mentions of Star Trek though, and have to admit that although my almost word-perfect knowledge of the original series episodes far exceeds my knowledge of most of the other sci-fi writers that were mentioned, I feel well equipped to deal with the future as foreseen in the 1960s Kirk/Spock era.

The future, it seems, is very personal. And William Gibson commented that it is only possible to write about the future from the perspective of the present. He wondered about the reception that his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), would have had if he had described today’s world of personal wifi, AIDS, international terrorism and the non-existence of the Soviet Union in his early 1980s vision of the future. So I guess that hints at the future we envisage as being a product of our personal view of the present.

Diane Coyle provided the economist’s perspective – that the future is all about investment, and that investors rarely look beyond the next 5 years – the near future. There was then discussion around whether there were any “far future” ideas any more, and whether we were currently experiencing such an enormity of technological advancement that we were simply “rendering” what we already have – a rather good analogy from a member of the audience. Other voices commented on the fact that technology already exceeded its promise, and gave as an example the lack of augmented reality apps. I have seen some interesting early instantiations of augmented reality (Aurasma, and the Museum of London’s Street Museum app) but have to say for the moment I agree that it doesn’t propel me very far forward. Maybe in time though.

To information then, and the concern that so much information will never be digitized that finding it will be impossible. Cory Doctorow argued that Google had digitized over 90% of books anyway, and that the rest would soon be dealt with. I am not sure his figures are quite right – digitization is not always that easy or straightforward, and, for sure a lot of documents have not yet reached the scanner. The enthusiasm for digitized material may lead to relevant items being missed in a search – unless you happen to be an information specialist – the question being rather whether anyone is looking hard enough, in the right place, in the right way.

In response to the issue of relevant documents being lost within “too much information” Diane Coyle argued that it was about attention; most information can be found, but is missed because no-one is looking at it – for example if it is listed beyond the first page on the Google search results listing.

On the flip side, we moved on to “bit rot” where information is lost because the technology to read it no longer exists. Cory Doctorow again voted for confidence in technology, stating that if information was held on “spinning platters” then it could be transferred to another type of spinning platter indefinitely. No-one considered whether this was always cost-effective though.

And to one of my favourite concerns – that nothing is ever deleted, and the more dire the image, the more likely it is to pop up again and bite you at some inconvenient time in the future. “Its tweeted in stone” – William Gibson’s observation, seemed entirely apposite.

So what about the story of the future – and who writes it? I don’t think the discussion answered this, although I was pleased to think that the future will clearly contain a lot of information which will need to be organized, and that thus, LIS specialists could still find employment. Interestingly the information related concerns were all problems of the present, so at least we are recognizing that things that are problematic now may go on to be a bigger nuisance in the future.

Other discussion centered around what it means to be human, and what we mean by “progress” – more knowledge, or a “better society”. And what is a better society – longer lived? Better informed? And how can we know how the future will be fashioned by our present?

William Gibson wondered if the inventors of the pager knew how much it would change drug dealing.

Humanity’s motto, he concluded, could well be “ who knew?”