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Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Look Back: Paul Otlet's Mundaneum




I think that with computers, technology, and information structure, we tend to have a 'tunnel vision' view of things. That is, we seem to look forward and only forward to see what the newest, shiniest gadgets will be. While the future prospects is indeed important, I to believe that it's fundamental to take a step back sometimes, and look at where the roots of our current technology came from. That being said, I'd like to introduce you to a man named Paul Otlet, who was an early information scientist (fancy word for librarian). Many may not have heard of his name, but you could easily say that he had an idea that resembled the web as we know it today. Otlet had many new idea's about classification and ways of storing information. It was very analog, and manual, but he had a vision of using information as a way to create 'trails'. In Brussels, Belgium in the 1930's, Paul Otlet has this huge office/warehouse built which he called The Mundaneum. This construct was an open warehouse building filled from the floor to the ceiling with filing cabinets, and drawers. He housed a staff of people there to literally read through books, and write down their information on index cards, and have them stored away. His main goal was to have a sort of 'bottom up' structure, where people could could take out an index card they could see what other people looked at as well. If someone took out 2 index cards, a third party could see the 'link' between the two. Its something that we lack in our library's today. If you take out a book and read through it, but you need more information on someone who was mentioned in the book, you have to go out and search it. In Otlet's Utopian view, you'd have access to what other books link to that document. He had this very idealistic view of information sciences. He was creating and thinking about all this as the League of Nations was forming, so he possessed this lofty goal of having a sort of "Global Library", in which information would be shared by all. His Mundaneum, actually took off, and it reached a max of nearly 15 million index cards, but unfortunately fate took the reins. We all know what catastrophic event took place in the early 1940's, especially in Belgium. The Nazi party stormed into Belgium, and his baby, the Mundanuem was destroyed, all the documents burned, and it was turned into a tour house for 3rd Reich artwork. After this Otlet, who's country was invaded and occupied, his life's work destroyed before his eyes, died as a nobody. Unfortunately people had more on their minds other than global information systems. He was generally forgotten and still remains as a figure that really doesn't get much recognition. Paul Otlet, who really had the basic frame work of hyperlinks, search engines, and the World Wide Web itself.

4 comments:

  1. Good post man. Really interesting.

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  2. Great read, it's very intriguing.

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  3. Definitely ahead of his time. It's a damn shame when great minds go unnoticed.

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  4. I'd never heard of Paul Otlet, thanks for enlightening me

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