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There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred And Two

Paul Otlet (1868 – 1944)

There was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t get an answer with varying degrees of veracity to any question by the press of a switch. In the days before the internet, we had to resort to books, a time-consuming practice. The breadth of our knowledge was much more restricted but, perhaps, the likelihood of it being correct is greater. Some, though, before the age of the computer, imagined a repository of all the world’s knowledge sitting in one place where anybody’s query could be answered in a relatively short space of time. One such was Belgian, Paul Otlet.

In 1895, along with a lawyer friend, Henri La Fontaine, Otlet established what they called the International Institute of Bibliography, an attempt to bring order to and categorise the sum of human knowledge, at least in printed form. It was an ambitious and audacious task.

The adoption of the Dewey Decimal System, devised in 1876 by the American librarian, Melvil Dewey, had brought some order to the contents of a library by dividing all knowledge into ten discrete groups. Building upon this, the duo published in 1904 what they called the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) system, which broke knowledge down into nine categories, leaving a tenth free for future expansion, and 70,000 sub-divisions. UDC is still used today in over 130 countries.

In 1910 Otlet and La Fontaine proposed the next stage of their vision, a repository of the world’s accumulated information, held in an organised and accessible format. This city of knowledge, a successor to the great library of Alexandria, was to be called the Mundaneum and was to be located in Brussels. The cornerstone of the venture, as well as their UDC system, was to be the paper index card, whose size had been standardised to its now recognisable three by five-inch format by Dewey.

Over time the Mundaneum was crammed with drawers, stuffed full of index cards holding bibliographic information of some 15 million books. Otlet’s institute, staffed by an army of women, offered a research system where, for a fee, a user could telegraph a question and, eventually receive, an answer. The constraints of a paper-based system, even one well organised, meant that it was a time-consuming job to thumb through the cards, copy out the information and send it on to the customer. It also proved difficult to copy and transmit bulky documents.

Naturally, Otlet pondered over the problem and in 1906 proposed a form of microphotography as a way of storing information, documents, and even complete books compactly on microfiche. In 1937 this way of storing data was lauded as the way to create a “World Brain” by an international documentation congress but Otlet was never able to implement this stage of his idea.

Otlet was an idealist, an apostle for internationalism, envisaging that the harnessing of new industrial technologies and man’s growing intellectual output was a way to foster greater world harmony and understanding. What put a spoke in his wheel, as well as the limitations of the then available technology, was the looming spectre of Nazism. When Belgium was occupied, Otlet desperately tried to save his life’s work from their clutches.

The Nazi censors duly made an inspection and were rather non-plussed by what they saw. “The institute and its goals cannot be clearly defined. It is some sort of … ‘museum for the whole world,’ displayed through the most embarrassing and cheap and primitive methods… The library is cobbled together and contains, besides a lot of waste, some things we can use. The card catalogue might prove rather useful”, a report stated.

A little while later, Nazi troops seized 63 tons of books and much of Otlet’s card index system. He soldiered on with his dream but died four months after the occupation ended.

Still, he had sown the seed for what ultimately became the world-wide web. Otlet may, though, have been horrified by what it has become. What remains of the Mundaneum was moved to Mons in 1998 and is still open to visitors.

If you enjoyed this, check out the stories of other inventors who have been consigned to the footnotes of history in Martin Fone’s new book, The Fickle Finger, out now