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Remembering a futuristic information pioneer

July 21, 2008

by Mark Ollig

Tim Berners-Lee developed the Internet protocols for connecting hyper-links to images, text, video and audio files over a web browser in 1991.

However, a man named Paul Otlet was working on this very idea back in 1934.

Otlet (pronounced ot-LAY) researched how information could be acquired over a global network using what he called “electric telescopes.”

These electric telescopes or modern day computers, would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked images, documents, video and audio files.

He called the whole thing a “réseau,” which is a French word meaning “network.”

Otlet described a networked world where “anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.”

What amazing foresight Mr. Otlet envisioned at that time.

Today, anyone sitting in an armchair has the ability to “contemplate” or “study” more or less “the whole of creation.”

Never had I heard of Paul Otlet or any of his research.

My insatiable curiosity had me immediately searching for any and all information about this man.

I learned in Otlet’s hometown of Mons Belgium, there is a small museum called the Mundaneum which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The Mundaneum pronounced (mun-da-NAY-um), houses the collection of works by Paul Otlet.

Paul Otlet’s pursuit to connect people to knowledge actually stared in 1895, when Otlet met the future Nobel Prize winner Henri La Fontaine.

Fontaine shared in Otlet’s vision of producing one master “bibliography” of the entire world’s published knowledge.

They both set out to collect data on every book, newspaper, magazine, photograph, poster and pamphlet ever published, along with a vast collection of written articles that libraries back then usually disregarded.

Otlet persuaded the Belgian government to support their project and to provide them operating space within a government building.

Using the “state-of-the-art” in storage technology available at the time (3-by-5 index cards); they went on to create an enormous gigantic paper database called a “universal catalog of all that had been written.”

This universal catalog had more than 17 million individual entries.

Thousands upon thousands of boxes containing these indexed cards were stored in wooden card holder drawers which lined the walls of the Mundaneum.

In 1904 Otlet and Fontaine utilized Melvil Dewey’s 1876 creation of the “Dewey Decimal Classification” to create a “map” to all of this collected written knowledge and where it was located inside the Mundaneum.

Otlet and Fontaine hired people who were trained “catalogers” to help them.

In 1910, Otlet established a fee-based research service that allowed anyone in the world to submit a question via mail or telegraph.

Over 1,500 world-wide submissions were submitted yearly for information and research.

As Otlet’s Mundaneum operations evolved, it began to be overwhelmed by the huge amounts of paper documentation being housed in it.

In order to manage this burgeoning “information overload,” Otlet started outlining new methods to organize it.

Although Otlet’s version of the “World Wide Web” relied on pieced together hardcopy technologies like index cards, he nevertheless put into practice the hyperlinked structure we commonly use a web browser for on the Internet today.

“This was a ‘Steampunk’ (19th century-style technology) version of hypertext,” said Kevin Kelly, former editor of “Wired” magazine.

Otlet’s vision relied on the idea of a networked machine that joined documents using symbolic links. Of course, this concept is a very real and observable one – we click on symbolic links or “hyper-links” online everyday.

Eventually, Otlet came to understand the ultimate answer involved removing the physical need for housing such a massive amount of paper documentation altogether.

It was the 1920s, and there was no such thing as “electronic data storage” – so Otlet began to research it.

In 1934 Paul Otlet wrote a book based on this research called: “Monde” meaning “The World” or “Worldly.”

In this book, Otlet presented his vision of a “mechanical collective brain” containing all of the world’s information. This information would be accessible at anytime, anywhere over a global telecommunications network.

Unfortunately, the ending of the story about Paul Otlet is sad one.

Just as Paul Otlet’s vision began to be realized, his Mundaneum was lost when the Belgian government withdrew its support.

Otlet then moved to a smaller location.

After a financial struggle, he was forced to close his operations to the public.

Now only a small group of people worked with him and when the German Nazi army marched through Belgium in 1940 it all ended.

The German army gutted the Mundaneum building and filled it with art from Germany’s Third Reich.

Thousands of boxes filled with Otlet’s 3-by-5 index cards were removed or destroyed – resulting in much of Otlet’s work being lost.

Today, the curators of the present day Mundaneum museum are actively finding and returning these lost documents to the museum to be stored as a memorial to Otlet and Fontaine’s work.

In 1944 Paul Otlet died at the age of 76.

What would Paul Otlet’s reaction be to today’s Internet and the global amount of information accessible on it?

Otlet would be “. . . rejoicing at the creation of the Internet and the Web, although he would be terribly upset about the lack of organization on it,” said W. Boyd Rayward, who wrote a biography on Paul Otlet.

To see a very enlightening video about Paul Otlet narrated by W. Boyd Rayward, go to http://www.archive.org/details/paulotlet. The video has both English and French audio narrations in it.