In 2008 at SXSW I saw Alex Wright deliver a presentation entitled “The Web That Wasn’t.” Wright enumerated a series of historical approaches to a “global distributed system for sharing knowledge” that weren’t the World Wide Web. His list included “low tech” visions such Vannevar Bush’s Memex and Paul Otlet’s “Mundaneum” as well as higher-tech counterparts such as Douglas Englebart’s NLS, and Ted Nelson’s Xanadu.
Having read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle not long before, I was interested in what techniques fact-gatherers of yore had used to organize their data in the era before the relational database or self-updating indices. In The Baroque Cycle clever gearworks, labels, and cabinetry make it possible to “reassemble the library” literally to find the right fact. Wright’s few remarks on Otlet’s “Mundaneum” piqued my curiosity: it seemed to be the synthesis of the Dewey Decimal system, the URL, and microfiche: a legacy information storage and retrieval medium that, like the card catalog, I was on the tipping point generation of. I had used the predecessor technologies and had learned, integrated, and come to prefer the successor technologies. Being a geek, of course, I harbor a nostalgia for those displaced technologies.
When I came across Cataloging the World it seemed to be a welcome deepening into the world of Otlet’s technology, but also provided color on the man and his times. Particularly of note that it brought out was that Otlet was a creature of that odd time before the Great War: The Belle Epoque, which marked a new spirit of Internationalism (see: the IWW, et al).
Otlet leaned on the work of Conrad Gessner who advocated collecting books' contents onto slips of paper (literally cut out, but in a more book-reverent age, copying would be preferable) that would be fit onto a standardize playing-card size. These cards would each bear a fact and each fact would be noted in a fashion consistent with the Universal Decimal Classification. Physical drawers would help identify and organize facts neatly. While card catalogs may seem anqiuated they provided a scalable, organized means until their successor, the relational database, came along. Notably Otlet advocated the extraction of the content of books into cards, thus winnowing away the author’s “voice” as but so much fluff (prefiguring the search engine). These cards became atomic entities which Otlet called “biblions.” Ultimately Otlet foresaw the birth of a new profession, the “documentalist” who would analyze and synthesize biblions for new querents. Otlet also supposed “client” systems that would integrate with the “home catalog” by which users could query, peruse and synthesize links across archived information.
Nevertheless, this technological scheme supposes a small army dedicated to order and control and a central organization for housing this body and their efforts. Here we see most clearly the Internationalist sentiment that Otlet held as a personal and spiritual requirement for his work’s success. Otlet spent much of his life seeking patrons and real estate that would house this collective: an institution he called the “Mundaneum.”
For any information worker today it is clear as his dream’s most colossal and glaring error: control systems simply do not scale. Considering the failure of Internet directories (Yahoo!’s original charter) or the maddening task that awaits anyone who seeks to groom a Wiki, a system of order and heirarchy like Otlet’s seems woefully out of touch – or perhaps merely a relic of a time when information was merely exploding versus exponentially exploding as it seems to be doing in our era.
I rather enjoyed the book and am fascinated by the solution that Otlet imagined in a world that predated the relational database. I feel Otlet’s story was greatly assisted by Wright’s historical placement of him and his solution. The last few chapters covered Otlet versus other information archive designers' solutions. In many ways I feel like Wright was repurposing much of his research from his work Glut. I didnt feel like these comparisons really served Otlet’s story well and these chapters felt bolted-on. Nevertheless, for anyone who would appreciate our information architectures of today, this slim summary of Otlet’s context and dreams was a welcome introduction.
I’ve also included my notes after the break.