Long before Vannevar Bush envisioned the Web or Alan Turing pioneered computing, a Belgian idealist and visionary Paul Otlet started documenting and cataloging information for use by the entire world. During the World War II, Otlet’s contributions in the field of information science faded into background and works of American scientists such as Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbert, Ted Nelson and others in this field became more popular.
However, a renewed interest developed in Otlet’s ideas and writings particularly in the early 1990s after the advent of the World Wide Web. Paul Otlet is considered to be one of the fathers of information science.
Paul Otlet published a book “Something about bibliography” in 1892 in which he wrote that books were not the correct way to store information because individual facts were difficult to locate in them. He felt that a better storage system would be a collection of cards, each card containing a “chunks” of information so that classification and manipulation of information would become easy.
In 1895, Otlet began the marathon task of indexing and cataloging every piece of published information in the world with Henri La Fontaine, another Belgian lawyer and future Nobel Prize winner, and stored it on index cards. They worked relentlessly for decades and created a Universal Bibliographic Repertory or Répertoire Bibliographique Universel containing more than 15 million entries from books, newspapers, magazines, posters, photographs and other published material. Later, Otlet also started storing data on microfilm.
The main aim of the Universal Bibliography was accessing and sharing. Otlet started a service to send copies of index cards by mail for a certain fee to those who requested the information. This was later termed by scholar Alex Wright as “Analog search engine”. Over the years, Paul Otlet tried to devise methods to collect and store information from all over the world, enable universal access and promote world harmony.
In the 1900s Otlet and La Fontaine envisaged the “City of knowledge” or “The Mundaneum”, a collection of all the published information in the world and global knowledge network. He wanted to build a huge 150-room museum or the Palais Mondial and a World City in Belgium. Unfortunately, the advent of World War II and his death in 1944 put an end to his ambitious plans, and all his work faded into obscurity.
Here is are some illustrations of his vision: