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Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly alongside partner Henri La Fontaine to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media.
His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web.
In his first publication, in 1892, he criticized the book as a unit of knowledge and advocated the atomization of individual units of information held within it, and their separate ‘documentation’ so that they were easily retrievable.
This was the genesis of Otlet’s favored means of documentation, the catalogue card. As a method of ordering the subjects found in his information systems he later (from 1905) developed the work for which he’s well known by librarians, the Universal Decimal Classification, an extension of the Dewey Decimal Classification devised by the American Melvil Dewey in 1876. The UDC was more sophisticated than Dewey’s scheme in that it allowed semantic relationships between subjects to be represented in its numbers (an early hint of the ‘semantic web’).
The universal book created from all books would become very approximately an annex to the brain, its own substratum of memory, an external mechanism and instrument of the mind, but so close to it, so well-adapted to its use, that it would truly be a kind of attached organ, an exodermic appendix.
Henri La Fontaine was born in Brussels in 1854 and became known as an authority on international law. World peace became his prime concern. He was president of the World Peace Bureau from 1907 and played a role in the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. In 1913 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. After the disaster of the First World War he campaigned for the establishment of an international court (it finally came into being at the end of another world war, in 1945, two years after his death). La Fontaine was a socialist – he was a founder member of the Belgian Labour Party and sat in the Belgian Senate from 1895 – and, with his sister Léonie, a passionate advocate for women’s rights and women’s suffrage (he was present at the foundation of the Belgian League for the Rights of Women in 1892). It was another of his interests, the organization of knowledge, that brought him into a lasting collaboration with Paul Otlet, from 1891.
With these new tools Otlet and La Fontaine set about the (impossible) task of cataloguing the world’s knowledge. They called their catalogue the Repertoire Bibliographique Universel, and within a year of its beginning in 1895 it contained 400,000 cards, stored in huge banks of wooden catalogue cabinets. At its peak it contained 15,000,000 cards (a remnant is preserved in today’s Mundaneum). Enquirers from around the world could send in their requests for information and, for the price of 27 francs, receive a response, including copies of the original cards. Originally called the Palais Mondial, the system was housed in a wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire, a government building in Brussels. It was later renamed the Mundaneum.
By 1910 Otlet and La Fontaine were ready to aim higher. They conceived the idea of a ‘world city’, a place that would bring together international organizations, including a world library and museum and university, and radiate knowledge, peace and cooperation throughout the world. Several architects, including Le Corbusier, drew up plans for the city. Needless to say, the City was never built. One wonders too about the reality or reach of some of the many world institutions the two men founded. They were inordinately fond of inventing new bodies, whose grandiose titles they always prefaced with the word ‘international’. These included the International Office of Sociological Bibliography, the International Office of Bibliography, the International Institute of Photography, the International Newspaper Museum, and the Central Office (and later, Union) of International Associations.
After the First World War, the work of La Fontaine and Otlet seems to have lost public support. The age of aggressive nationalism was hardly fertile soil for their internationalist ideals and positivist faith in scientifically guided progress. One periodical complained that they were trying to ‘transform the whole of Brussels into a vast city of cards’. The Belgian government withdrew its funding and the Mundaneum closed to the public in 1934.
In the year of the original closure, 1934, Paul Otlet published a work that established himself as not just a deviser of documentary systems and bodies but as a thinker of real originality. The book was called Traité de documentation and in it he brought together his ideas about the future of the organization of knowledge.
Otlet had proved his credentials as an ingenious inventor before the War. In 1906 he adopted the microfiche as a means of miniaturizing information, and in the same year anticipated the coming of the wireless telephone. An undated sheet from around 1920 seems to sketch a phone conference (séance de comité), a videoconference, and a means of remotely transmitting the contents of books and Otlet’s beloved catalogue cards through a television (a prophecy of the World Wide Web). He also came up with the idea of a Mondothèque, a workstation giving access to the world’s knowledge and connected to remote knowledge by radio and television. He had a phrase to describe this interconnectedness: réseau mondial – a worldwide network.
You wonder how such a fertile brain as Otlet’s would have reacted, had he lived in a slightly later age, to the nexus of computer and telecommunications technologies and their possibilities. He would have been contemptuous perhaps of the bazaar-like nature of the Web, and the dumbness of our current internet search engines, with their habit of distorting search results through commercialization (overt and covert) and personalization. His solutions to organizing knowledge always gave a leading role to human systematizing, represented by cataloguing and classification. Even Wikipedia, the best approximation to what he intended, he would have found distressingly open and amateur.
But what’s just as interesting as the technological breakthroughs and ambitions of La Fontaine and Otlet is what drove them to take an interest in the organization and communication of knowledge in the first place. Their motivation must have been the old Socratic equation, paradoxical and utopian though it seems to most people, between knowledge and virtue, between awareness of what is good and the doing of good. The conviction shared by the two men was surely that, if only men and women had the means to reach a true understanding of themselves and knowledge about the world, the destructive forces of war, nationalism and inequality could be overcome and a new age of international cooperation might dawn. If that conviction was badly damaged by two world wars and the other horrors of the twentieth century, it is hardly easier to promote in our own age, one of resurgent fascism and widespread contempt for the value of knowledge.