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Towards a Library of Technical Communication


Jonathan Price, Colombe Leland, Elena Marshall

Proceedings of the 45th Annual Conference. Arlington, VA: Society for Technical Communication. 1998. 263-266.
Technical communication needs its own library, to preserve our work, and to enable other writers, editors, managers, students, teachers, and researchers to study good and bad examples, analyze what works and what does not, and develop a real history of our churning field, in which many good ideas have surfaced, then been dropped, reinvented, turned around, and forgotten.

We propose developing a prototype library, soliciting materials of every kind from technical communicators around the country, and opening an ongoing discussion of paths to take toward a resource we could all use.

Imagine a library of ephemera—the very items that traditional libraries throw away, or sell to the public to raise funds for serious books. Of course, as technical communicators, we look on those manuals, training materials, disks, and electronic files as, well, our work.

Imagine a Library of Technical Communication, then. Shelves of configuration guides, rows and rows of tutorials, rooms full of user guides, each volume ready for you to browse through if you could visit physically, or easy to borrow via express delivery or over the Internet for a crash project. Jukeboxes full of CD-ROMs, ready to play for you right there, or over the Internet. Computers and printers of each generation and operating system, from the Altair to the Network Computer; from mainframes to minis, client server setups, personal computers, and workstations, all with ancient software so you could replay the original help system, or reprint the electronic files that were created in Word 1, or, heaven help us, WordStar. An electronic database ready to help you look up whatever type of documentation you need, specifying, say, a range of dates, a genre, subject matter, and even publishers. And a Web site offering the whole catalog online, letting you acquire a copy of anything electronic, order a printout by express mail, or, for current documents, jump to the relevant sites.

Expensive, isn’t it? Of course, we might not ever see such a gigantic hall of fame for technical communication. But for a moment, imagine that some such library existed. Imagine taking your children in to show them that manual you just finished last year. Or, more seriously, imagine being able to look through a dozen examples of a type of tutorial you have never written, before writing your own document design. Writing always improves when it is based on good examples.

The Opportunity

The STC as a society has immense expertise in an area of publishing that no major library collects—technical communication. As writers, editors, managers, teachers, and researchers in technical communication, we also have a responsibility to preserve examples of technical communication from around the world for future communicators, students, and teachers. That’s why we propose an international Library of Technical Communication.

  • No university has set up a special library devoted to technical communication or documentation. Some professors have cached small selections of sample manuals in their departmental libraries, or in their own offices, for use by a few current students.
  • Most large companies have a library of the documentation needed for whatever software they are using, but no collection of other materials. Even the technical writing and user interface groups at major companies have only a random assortment of examples, usually based on whatever products they have tried out, thinking about purchase.

A wide range of people would benefit from being able to borrow and examine examples of the work that has been done over the last fifty years:

  • To understand how to transfer an understanding of new technology to potential manufacturers, and consumers.
  • To learn what technology is available for transfer from the research to the commercial sector.
  • To see what works and does not work, through personal experience of a variety of books, disks, and tapes.
  • To avoid problems before they get built into the design of new books, online help, interactive demonstrations, and training materials.
  • To learn successful techniques for communicating technical information quickly, efficiently, and succinctly.
  • To understand and improve upon the book designs, software user interfaces, and program designs for interactive products.
  • To trace the history, and identify the major influences in the development of documentation here in the United States, and around the world, taking this literature out of the gray area, and giving it a legitimate place.
  • To compare a large number of manuals to derive a rhetoric of technical writing, and to formulate design principles for the entire range of technical communication.

The Audiences

We envision, then, several potential audiences for such a library:

  • Researchers in government-sponsored laboratories need to see the work being done in industry, creating user-friendly documentation—a relatively new concept in areas where the government is the client. Now that they need to explain new technology to potential manufacturers and users, they need to learn to communicate better.
  • Manufacturers interested in bringing these new technologies to market need to be able to read about them, and then to develop clear descriptions for their marketing and sales arms, and eventually for their customers—the end users.
  • Industry writers, managers, engineers working on interactive applications, user interface designers, all need a wide base of products to compare their own evolving design with.
  • Students could turn to an extensive library of technical communication for examples, when their textbooks offer only a few, and their own school library has none.
  • Scholars could do a better job of analyzing real examples of technical communication. If you review academic publications on technical communication you can see that the citations of other scholars far outnumber any references to the primary material, that is, actual technical communications. In no other discipline in the university is so much written about a subject in the abstract, with so little actual examination of primary materials. Certainly scholars should keep up with the developing theoretical conversation, but a major embarrassment to our intellectual discipline must be the general lack of discussion of real technical communications—particular documents, actual files, specific help systems, concrete CD-ROMs, real reports . Anyone studying Henry Fielding, say, needs access to ten or twenty yards of journals, scholarly books, and bibliographies, but we would also expect such a scholar to be familiar, in most cases, with the original novels, poems, and legal briefs. Now most researchers of technical communication are like monks without Bibles: they have very few actual examples of technical communication available to them through their library system. Our Library of Technical Communication would offer these scholars access to far more primary material than they have had a chance to explore.

The Media

To carry out the many functions of documentation, as creators of technical communication, we use a wide variety of media, all of which should be included in the library:

  • Traditional overviews of broad concepts, installation instructions, and some planning and configuration materials work well in book format, poorly onscreen as computer text or video. Quick references work well in accordion booklets.
  • Task-oriented procedures serve people in the middle of their work, and that often means that these procedures should be incorporated into the software itself, as online help.
  • To show beginners roughly what they can expect to do physically with a brand-new product, and what they can expect to see as they do it, video offers clear guidance.
  • To take advantage of full-color images, sound, and video, many software vendors are combining instructional materials with computer-based training, and extensive, almost encyclopedia-like lookup, delivered on CD-ROM disks.
  • To leverage all the development costs of earlier manuals and online help, companies are beginning to post their documentation on information services such as America Online or CompuServe, on the Internet, and on the World Wide Web. Such online sites allow quick communication with the people these companies are trying to inform.

Assembling a collection in many media presents challenges similar to those that contemporary librarians have faced creating CD-ROM stations, installing online catalogs, and offering computing services. For example, paper materials come in many sizes and bindings:

  • Binders for 8.5x11 paper
  • Binders with a trim size about 7"x9"
  • Spiral bound books
  • Saddlestitched books in all regular sizes
  • Stapled booklets in trim sizes from 3"x5" to 8"x10"
  • Single sheets, laminated or on heavy card stock
  • Accordion fold job aids, and quick reference cards

Electronic materials come in many forms and file formats:

  • Floppy disk versions of interactive tutorials, demos, and online help (3.5" disks with 800K, 1.4 Megabyte)
  • Tape versions of online help and online documentation for VAXes, other mini computers, and mainframe computers
  • Disks with compacted video, to be displayed on Macintosh, Amiga, DOS, Windows or UNIX personal computers and workstations
  • CD ROM disks, often with interactive video, for use on Macintosh, Amiga, DOS, Windows, personal computers or UNIX workstations
  • Videotapes introducing customers to the user of products such as PageMaker, and Illustrator. (Half-inch consumer tapes, usually).
  • Web site presentation of answers to frequently asked questions, white papers, and complete documentation.

Clearly, finding and maintaining the hardware and software necessary to present these electronic materials would be an enormous undertaking. Oddly, the very immediacy of the computer has meant that our work has a half-life of 18 months, and only very impoverished users are still using our work three years after publication. How many people in this audience still have the original MacPaint manual, that eccentric masterpiece? How many still use MacPaint on their first Mac? Such manuals and such equipment survive primarily in organizations that have been treated with benign neglect by the rest of our culture—prisons, churches, schools. We would need to rescue this material from the closets and attics of America, to display the related software, to use the original word processing software to print out a new copy of the manual, and, for electronic materials, to display them as originally intended. What a historical undertaking, and what an amazing museum of technology we would end up with!

The First Steps

We are developing a prototype library first.

  • We are now asking for donations from all the STC chapters that hold annual competitions, because the competitions often require three or four copies of each submission, many of which are not needed afterward; also, the International Competition. When approached informally, many chapter presidents seem quite eager to contribute, because they see a real need for such a library.
  • We will create a set of links to all the documentation our members are currently presenting on the Web. To be useful, these links must be catalogued and offered up through a database, so someone can search for relevant materials..
  • We have develoed a database for cataloguing these materials, so they can be received and shelved quickly, with a minimum amount of thought and labor. Students at New Mexico Tech have come up with a prototype cataloging system, and we have catalogued more than 1,000 paper and electronic documents, to test it out.
  • We still need to thrash out questions of access, availability, staffing, and space, with potential library hosts, to understand their problems more clearly.

John Brockmann has suggested that as a first effort we might create a CD-ROM containing some great manuals from the past—going as far back as the eighteenth century. The purpose of such a CD would be to deliver accurate reproductions of historical examples of documentation, to prove, in a way, that we have a history, and deserve a more complete library.

The Next Steps (Possible Scenarios)

When the prototype seems to be working, we will solicit voluntary contributions from corporations, organizations, and individuals who produce documentation of any type.

  • Software and hardware companies.
  • Organizations of professionals such as the Society of Technical Communication, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the IEEE.
  • Electronics firms.
  • Producers of major appliances.
  • Car manufacturers.
  • Manufacturers of airplanes, ships, rockets, tanks, and other complex military equipment.
  • Companies who create procedures manuals, or manuals for their inhouse systems.

We expect to solicit support from a wide range of organizations. The idea here is to lay the groundwork for many future donations, and a campaign to get federal funding.

Once the prototype library has reached critical mass, we should approach the federal government with a proposal for a high-technology initiative, a bill aimed at getting federal funding for:

  • A large new building for the library, with plenty of shelf space, a lot of different computers and video machines to show the materials, and an outreach program to scholars and designers throughout the country.
  • Funding for the staff, acquisitions, and overhead, to be administered through the host library.
  • Continued and expanded liaison via interlibrary loan, and similar activities, such as the Library Service Alliance with the libraries and technical communicators in Los Alamos National Laboratories, Phillips Laboratory, Sandia Laboratory, and other federally supported research institutions.


We who have been working to develop our prototype library do understand that we’re crazy to dream of a library for the forgotten, the abused, yes, even the cursed among books. But we think that the stigma we work under may be lifted in the 21st century, that eventually technical communication will be recognized as one of the most vital arenas in which grownups practice rhetoric, and that people will one day look around and say, "I wonder where all those old manuals went?" Right now, they go to the trash heap. So, out of a mixture of vanity (who wants their work forgotten?) and altruism (perhaps such a library could be of real use), we want to preserve our documents in a giant archive. The Library of Technical Communication may not be as important as the library of Alexandria, but if we don’t start putting our own library together, the people who follow our path will find themselves wondering what might have survived, if only our culture had not tossed technical communication into a landfill.

Yes, We Accept!

We are actively soliciting donations to the prototype library. Books, brochures, CD-ROMs, magazines, help systems, whole web sites—Your donation will be recognized with a certificate of recognition, and a grateful mention on our honor roll at the entry to the shelves.

Please let us know the names and roles of all the contributors, because we include those in our database. If you would prefer to limit access to the document for a certain period of time (to avoid software pirates, for instance), please let us know; we will be glad to cooperate. For CD-ROM and electronic files, please let us know what hardware and software are needed.

If you have any questions, please do call us at 505 898 4912.

Our snail mail address is, temporarily, The Library of Technical Communication, 918 La Senda, NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107.


Copyright 1998-2001 Jonathan and Lisa Price, The Communication Circle
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