Writing by Peter Hilton

The death of the living document

Relics of the typewriter age - 23 November 2021 #documentation

A document granting permission to drive a train

Марьян Блан

People often abuse the term living document when sharing a document with other people who could potentially keep it up-to-date but who, in practice, will do no such thing. Calling something a living document doesn’t mean that someone else will ever update it.

The term living document comes from a simpler time when a document always described the past, and a document’s lifecycle meant archiving it and writing another one. But now, living documents’ time has run out.

On paper

Before computers, the term document referred to the original artefact of written material on paper, or vellum or other parchment, if you go back far enough. A document had a different status to copies. In this context, a document resembles a published book: no-one modifies a document after publishing it, as the usual way of doing things.

The idea of a living document comes from the once novel idea of continuing to update a document throughout its lifetime of use. On a paper document, these updates would involve a mess of annotations or corrections, while a word-processor document remains editable.

On the web

From the beginning, the natural way of web pages allows them to change from one day to the next. This has become the dominant document paradigm, and the original kind of document the exception - such as the photograph of a manuscript (in its original meaning of hand-written). While the original vision for an editable web had a slow start, wikis and blogging tools eventually established the idea of editable web pages.

The editable web took mindshare from word-processors, whose limited ability to publish their documents now makes them feel old-fashioned. I wrote about having abandoned word-processors professionally back in 2006, in Wiki is my word-processor. Today, word-processor documents inhabit an unusual place, and living document has become a decreasingly useful concept.

In meetings

These days, if anyone calls something a living document in a meeting, you need to have a conversation about a document lifecycle process. Now that we have such a broad digital spectrum between text that someone literally wrote in stone and what someone just wrote on a whiteboard (when they use the right pen!), it helps to make expectations explicit. For example, you can answer questions like the following in all sorts of combinations.

  • Will the document have multiple versions?
  • What will trigger a document update?
  • Does the original author have responsibility for updating the document after publication?
  • Which corrections and other changes require a new publication date?
  • Will the document list its version history, authors, or changes?
  • Does the document have a publication status that corresponds to a maintenance process step?
  • Who participates in the document maintenance process, in which roles?

Only when you answer no/nothing/nobody to every one of these questions do you have something other than a living document. But following the death of the living document, document lifecycles remain.