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A document (noun) is a bounded physical representation of a body of information designed with the capacity (and usually intent) to communicate. A document may manifest symbolic, diagrammatic or sensory-representational information. To document (verb) is to produce a document artifact by collecting and representing information. In prototypical usage, a document is understood as a paper artifact, containing information in the form of ink marks. Increasingly documents are also understood as digital artifacts.

Colloquial usage is revealed by the connotations and denotations that appear in a Web search for document. From these usages, one can infer the following typical connotations:

  • Writing that provides information person's thinking by means of symbolic marks.
  • A written account of ownership or obligation.
  • To record in detail; "The parents documented every step of their child's development".
  • A digital file in a particular format.
  • To support or supply with references; "Can you document your claims?".
  • An artifact that meets a legal notion of document for purposes of discovery in litigation.
  • Document is the practical construct for describing matter in different forms which retain information for a reasonable period of time wherein it can be perceived by a sentient observing entity.

The variety usage reveals that the notion of document has rich social and cultural aspects besides the physical, functional and operational aspects.

Document production

There are a number of roles in which people are involved in the creation and distribution of traditional paper documents (Romano, 1989); some, but not all documents are processed by people acting in each role, each of which may be performed by an individual or a group. Books are a well known example of documents that require an extensive publication process, but many other documents undergo similar processes to at least some of those from book publication. Each of these roles is considered to improve or add value to a document. These roles are generally understood as being clustered in various phases in the production of a classical document, including authorship, editing and prepress. Roles and workflows in the production of modern digital documents are more variable and are discussed in the section on future documents.

  • An author selects the content to be communicated and performs the initial organization and recording of the content. A document in this state is often called a manuscript.
  • A reviewer reads the content and evaluates it with respect to the intended audience. Reviewers often recommend only the best documents to be published. Documented reviews are frequently published as guidelines for document consumers as well.
  • An editor helps to organize and express the content so that the meaning is clear and understandable, and follows the conventions of the symbolic representation such as spelling and grammar.
  • A publisher orchestrates the process of producing a document, often decides whether a document is worth the effort of publishing (usually an economic decision), and collects and disseminates the profits from sales of a produced document.
  • A printer formats the document into a comfortable form such as a bound book. Printing can be a very complex and elaborate process, including
pagination - function performed by an individual who takes on the tasks of organizing text, fonts, images, headings, footnotes, chapters and sections to accommodate the physical constraints of a printed page aesthetically.
pre-press—function performed by print shops in preparing paper documents for production.
imposition - organizing desired pages on a larger media such that when folded and trimmed the pages will be upright and in order.
printing - marking paper with ink or toner
folding pages into sections
binding pages together and covering
  • A distributor manages inventory and physical distribution of printed documents to retailers.
  • A retailer manages a local inventory and sales to consumers, and often is familiar with the content and can make appropriate recommendations.
  • A librarian organizes, tracks borrowing of, and archives documents.

A publication process enables a consumer to purchase or borrow, read and learn from documents. Consumers are often the intended audience of the publication process.