Sunday, June 15, 2014
Cataloging The World
Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age
By Alex Wright
Published by Oxford University Press, June 2014
We are all used to using the internet and indeed for taking it for granted, so much so that sometimes we fail to remember what an amazing and extraordinary resource it is, and to which we have more or less free and untrammelled access.
Yet long before even the first microchip was thought of, there was Paul Otlet - a visionary genius who had the idea (and the intellectual capacity to carry it out) of a plan to catalogue the entire knowledge of the world and make it easily accessible and widely disseminated. His ideas, of course, were not for digital distribution of knowledge as we know it, but nonetheless, his idea was truly revolutionary. He saw a future where a simple library catalogue index card would lead to books and journals being published in microform and ultimately to the creation of an analog spider's web of information, where users would access special workstations with viewing screens which would then be connected to a central repository, allowing users to "call up" information on whatever topic interested them.
From the beginning of recorded history and more especially after the advent of the printing press, it had always been a challenge to catalogue, order and be able to find specific pieces of knowledge. As increasingly large quantities of books were being published throughout the world, the problems became more acute and although Dewey's famous library classification of books was a fine attempt to bring logic and order, it had many failings. Topics which were of very limited interest to the readers, writers and researchers of Dewey's age were given short shrift and with the rapid advances in technology and science, soon there were to be many, many topics which Dewey had never envisaged.
It needed a special person indeed to face such a challenge of catologuing the whole world and the exponential rise in published books, journals and documents, and that man was Paul Otlet. He was convinced that knowledge went hand in hand with the potential for world co-operation and peace and saw his work as benefitting the whole world. He created a vast social network of personal friends, organisations and interested individuals and supporters who shared knowledge and information freely. His creation of a Universal Bibliography and its associated museum displays, the product of almost fifty years of devoted work and housed at the Palais Mondial in Brussels, was ultimately to be dismantled by German troops in the pursuit of Hitler's dream of utilising the resources of Occupied Europe to create a Nazi university for the Third Reich.
Otlet's dreams had been dashed, and he was to die shortly after the liberation of Brussels in 1944, his work scattered and largely forgotten. It was not until the late 1960s when a student named Boyd Rayward, who was working towards a doctorate in library science, unearthed references to Otlet and chose to use his work as the subject for his dissertation. Searching through Brussels, Rayward found the abandoned and deteriorating remains of Otlet's life's work and set about preserving and recording as much as he could.
Alex Wright has done a superb job of bringing Otlet's vision and achievements firmly back into the historical record and assessed his contribution to information technology in its broadest sense. A remarkable look at a truly amazing man.