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Collecting the entire world’s knowledge

July 20, 2018
by Mark Ollig

Tim Berners-Lee developed the protocols for connecting hyperlinks to images, text, video, and audio files, which could be shared among other computers over a network.

Berners-Lee had created the World Wide Web, which became publicly accessible in 1991.

However, a man named Paul Otlet was working on the same idea for sharing information at the start of the 20th century.

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

These electric telescopes (think computer display screens) 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.”

Today, we live in that world. Anyone sitting in an armchair can study and contemplate the whole of creation with a smartdevice and internet connection.

In 1895, Otlet met future Nobel Prize winner Henri La Fontaine.

La Fontaine shared in Otlet’s enthusiastic vision for creating one “master bibliography” or catalog of the world’s published knowledge.

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

Otlet persuaded the Belgian government to support their project by providing working space within a government building.

Otlet, La Fontaine, and their helpers created a gigantic database called a “universal catalog of all that had been written,” searchable, using 3-inch-by-5-inch paper index cards.

Many thousands of indexed cards were stored in small wooden drawers, which lined the walls inside the building Otlet named “The World Palace.”

By 1904, Otlet and La Fontaine began using Melville Dewey’s 1876 creation of his decimal classification system.

They created a decimal-indexed map of the vast collection of books, newspapers, and other documentation stored inside their building.

Otlet and La Fontaine hired trained “catalogers” to help them with the indexing.

In 1910, they established a fee-based research service. Anyone could submit a question via mail or telegraph to be researched using the document collection.

More than 1,500 requests were submitted yearly for information and research.

Otlet and La Fontaine called their information collection and researching document retrieval operation The Mundaneum; pronounced (mun-da-NAY-um).

As their operations evolved, the building storing the considerable amounts of paper documentation began to run out of space.

To manage this expanding paper information overload, Otlet started outlining new methods for organizing it.

He pieced together what could be called paper hypertext technologies; such as using index cards in such a manner they became a type of hyperlinked structure.

Otlet envisioned a network of joining documents using symbolic links, which is analogous to how a web browser works.

Eventually, he came to understand the ultimate answer was to replace the physical storage required to hold the world’s massive amounts of paper documentation.

Otlet realized the future of information contained on paper documentation was to have it copied onto electronic storage.

In 1934, Otlet wrote a book called “Monde,” meaning “The World,” or “Worldly.”

In this book, Otlet presented his vision of an electronic “mechanical, collective brain” containing all of the world’s information.

This information would be accessible anywhere over a worldwide, electronic telecommunications network.

Just as Otlet’s and La Fontaine’s document collection and researching services were growing, the Belgian government withdrew its support of his documentation project.

They then moved their operation to a smaller building in Belgium.

Because of financial problems, Otlet could only afford a handful of people to work with him, cataloging and storing documents.

Sadly, the end of Otlet’s dream came in May 1940, when the German Nazi army invaded and marched through Belgium.

The army removed and destroyed much of the paper documents stored in Otlet’s building.

Thousands of boxes filled with Otlet’s index cards were removed or destroyed.

A considerable amount of Otlet’s and La Fontaine’s years of work was now gone.

Henri La Fontaine passed away May 14, 1943, at the age of 89, in Brussels, Belgium.

Paul Otlet died at the age of 76, Dec. 10, 1944, in Brussels, Belgium.

Today, in the town of Mons, Belgium, a small museum called The Mundaneum currently houses a collection of the documents, wooden card holders, and other items from Otlet’s and La Fontaine’s work.

The curators of The Mundaneum are presently recovering or replacing lost documents, and returning them to the museum to be stored and viewed by the public as a memorial to Otlet and La Fontaine.

W. Boyd Rayward, who wrote a biography on Paul Otlet, said 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.”

I highly recommend a video by Paul Otlet biographer, W. Boyd Rayward, at http://www.archive.org/details/paulotlet.

This column was originally written July 21, 2008, and recently updated for today’s publication.

Visit my weblog at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.


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