May 1, 2008

The Mundaneum + Paul Otlet

Paul Otlet (b. August 23, 1868, Belgium - December 10, 1944) was the founding father of documentation, the field of study now more commonly referred to as information science. He created the Universal Decimal Classification, one of the most prominent examples of faceted classification. Otlet was responsible for the widespread adoption in Europe of the standard American 3x5 inch index card used until recently in most library catalogs around the world, though largely displaced by the advent of online public access catalogs (OPAC). Otlet wrote numerous essays on how to collect and organize the world’s knowledge, culminating in two books, the Traité de documentation (1934) and Monde: Essai d'universalisme (1935).

Otlet, along with his friend and colleague Henri La Fontaine, founded the now-bankrupt Institut International de Bibliographie in 1895 which later became in English the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID). In 1910, following a huge international conference, they created the Union of International Associations, which is still located in Brussels. They also created a great international center called at first Palais Mondial (World Palace), later, the Mundaneum to house the collections and activities of their various organizations and institutes.

Otlet was also a tireless idealist and peace activist, pushing internationalist political ideas that were embodied in the League of Nations and its International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (forerunner of UNESCO), working alongside his colleague Henri La Fontaine, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913, to achieve their ideas of a new world polity that they saw arising from the global diffusion of information and the creation of new kinds of international organization.

Paul Otlet devoted his professional life to the art of collecting, recording, organizing and disseminating knowledge. Although he lived decades before computers and networks emerged, what he discussed prefigured what ultimately became the World Wide Web. His vision of a great network of knowledge was centered on documents and included the notions of hyperlinks, search engines, remote access, and social networks—although these notions were described by different names.

Otlet not only imagined that all the world's knowledge should be interlinked and made available remotely to anyone (what he called an International Network for Universal Documentation), he also proceeded to build a structured document collection that involved standardized paper sheets and cards filed in custom-designed cabinets according to an ever-expanding ontology, an indexing staff which culled information worldwide from as diverse sources as possible, and a commercial information retrieval service which answered written requests by copying relevant information from index cards. Users of this service were even warned if their query was likely to produce more than 50 results per search.

The bibliography or Table of Contents of Paul Otlet's Permanent Encyclopedia grew from 400,000 entries in 1895 to over 15 million in 1934[citation needed]; the Encyclopedia itself eventually contained 100,000 files and an image database also eventually achieved million of items, all organized and searchable according to the UDC, a significant achievement for a paper-based, human-powered search engine. Although Otlet encouraged collaborative authorship as in the Wikipedia, his collections required centralized indexing according to the Universal Decimal Classification.

Paul Otlet also aimed to extract "substance" from books much like we strive to separate content from presentation on the Web, and then cross-link this substance with other contents and automatically provide enriched combinations in ways unforeseen by the original book authors. This vision is strikingly similar to Tim Berners-Lee's late-1990s concept of the Semantic Web.

Abandoned by the Belgian government, suffering from mismanagement, financially strapped, the Mundaneum was dealt a serious blow by German troops marching into Brussels at the outbreak of World War II. Requisitioning the Mundaneum's quarters and destroying substantial amounts of its collections in doing so, the Germans forced Otlet and his colleagues to find a new home for the Mundaneum. In a large but decrepit building in the Parc Leopold they reconsituted the Mundaneum as best as they could and there it remained after Otlet's death in 1944 until it was forced to move again in 1972. After many vicissitudes, including several more moves, the Mundaneum as an archive and museum devoted to Otlet and his colleague La Fontaine and the work of others associated with them was opened in Mons (Belgium) in 1998. Here are to be found the personal papers of Otlet and La Fontaine and the archives of the various organizations they created along with other collections important for the modern history of Belgium.

In the wake of World War II, the contributions of Otlet to the field of information science were lost sight of in the rising popularity of the ideas of American information scientists such as Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson and by such theorists of information organization as Seymour Lubetzky. After all he was a Belgian writing in French in the pre-computer era and by the end of his long life had already fallen into international obscurity compared to the great days of his success. However, in recent years with the advent of networked communication, digitization and the World Wide Web, new interest has arisen in Otlet's forward-looking, pioneering speculations and theories about the organization of knowledge, the use of new information technologies, and globalization. His 1934 masterpiece, the Traité de documentation, was reprinted in 1989 by the Centre de Lecture publique de la Communauté française in Belgium. The original edition has recently been digitized ( Unfortunately, neither the Traité nor its companion work, "Monde" (World) has been translated into English so far. In 1990 Professor W. Boyd Rayward published an English translation of some of Otlet's best writings (available at He has also published a biography of Otlet (1975) that has been translated into Russian (1976) and Spanish (1996, 1999, and 2005). (from Wikipedia) (inspiration from Mr. Scott Bodenner)

1 comment:

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