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From Latin documentum, which means a 'lesson, example, instance, specimen', that is 'anything that provides instruction' as this abstract noun is derived from the verb doceo 'to teach, inform, instruct'. In the middle ages the word documentum may also mean 'testimony, quotation in support' (according to Niermeyer, s.v.), thus preparing the modern meaning.

There are various approaches to define the rather elusive concept 'document'. It may designate any symbolic representation of language on a material support, so it is a carrier of text. Among librarians e.g. Schürmeyer (1935, p. 537) has a wider understanding of what a document is: "Man versteht heute unter einem Dokument jede materielle Unterlage zur Erweiterung unserer Kenntnisse, die einem Studium oder Vergleich zugänglich ist." (Today one understands as a document any material basis enlarging our knowledge available for study or comparison). This very wide approach would then comprise e.g. physical objects found in archaeology that do not contain writing. Donker Duyvis also offers a rather broad definition“A document is the repository of an expressed thought" (translation from Voorhoeve 1964, p. 48). In our present context, however, it seems preferable to require a linguistic character of a document. 

The definitory problem becomes even more acute in the computer age. Here a (computer) document is a file representing a (traditional) document and thus (human) language, but the boundaries remain rather elusive as every file is basically a sequence of 1s and 0s carrying some information. Cf. data formats for textual data 

Documents include: scrolls, manuscripts, books, charters, treaties, inscriptions, microfilms etc. Their copying produces a transmission. All its witnesses are documents. A single document may be edited in a documentary edition. In everyday language, a document is often something containing only a single page, like legal documents.


– Buckland, Michael. 1998. “What is a digital document?” Document Numérique 2 (2): 221–230. – Shortened online version, accessed 12 October 2015: 
– Donker Duyvis, Frits. 1942. Normalisatie op het gebied der documentatie. ’s-Gravenhage: Nederlandsch Instituut voor Documentatie en Registratuur.
Schürmeyer, Walter. 1935. “Aufgaben und Methoden der Dokumentation”. Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen 52: 533–543. – Reprinted in Peter R. Frank. 1978. Von der systematischen Bibliographie zur Dokumentation. Darmstadt: Wissenschafliche Buchgesellschaft. 
– Voorhoeve, Nicolaas Anthony Johannes. 1964. “F. Donker Duyvis and standardization”. In F. Donker Duyvis: His life and work, 39–50.s-Gravenhage: Nederlandsch Instituut voor Documentatie en Registratuur. 

In other languages

DE: Dokument
FR: document
IT: documento


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