Book: Cataloging the World


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 by Neal Stephenson 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. It seemed to be 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 old displaced technologies and am awed by how they accomplished so much with such rudimentary tools.

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 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).

Cataloging the World

Otlet’s Technology

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.

Card Catalog

Otlet’s Institution

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.”

Otlet’s Weaknesses

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.

Raw Notes

Otlet’s Major works: World (Monde) and Treatise

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.: Alex Wright, Oxford, NY. 2014.

Organized content according to the Universal Decimal Classification

Believer in one-world government, new internationalism (9)

The world museum is an extension / repository of the World-City(9)

“By today’s standards, Otlet’s proto-Web was a clumsy affair, relying on a patchwork system of index cards, file cabinets, telegraph machines, and a small army of clerical workers.“(15)

Conrad Gessner: “culled material from a wide range of sources…collected the contents into a series of works that he published as new books…purporting to catalog every known book.”

“Bacon implored his readers not to interpret [his organization scheme] as a rigid separation of the disciplines…instead, ‘that all partitions of knowledge be accepted rather for lines and veins, than for sections and separations…[fostering] the unity, rather than the atomization, of human knowledge. (28)

Wilkins’ Scheme: “a grammar of additional conjugations, suffixes and other syntactic elements that would allow the speaker to link one thought to another. He also proposed the use of simple signs, like dashes and other symbols.” (30)

Today we might tend to think of the card catalog ask a simplistic information retrieval tool: the dominion of somber librarians in fusty reading rooms. However, to take such a dismissive view of these compact, efficient systems – the direct ancestors of the modern database - may lead us to overlook the critical role they played in the industrial information explosion that would reshape the European world in the nineteenth century.(33)

Steam powered production enabled the creation of the Penny Bloods or Penny Dreadfuls(34); was this perhaps similar to the app explosion we see today: the means are widespread by the quality varies greatly?

Taylor on “Scientific Management: ‘In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.’

“For libraries to thrive in an industrial age, Dewey argued, they would have to abandon their idiosyncratic local conventions and adopt standardized techniques that would eventually yield massive economies of scale. By sacrificing individual autonomy in the service of the greater ideal of productivity, Dewey’s system brought Taylorism out of the factory and into the library stacks. To realize that potential, Dewy insisted that libraries would need to submit themselves to a program of strict standardization: management techniques, equipment, and systematic rules that would govern everything from the printing of index cards to the size of drawers, boxes, inkwells, and pens - all in the hope of achieving a greater level of synchronization… part of a larger social mission…[making] their material more widely available…would serve more patrons and thereby exert a growing influence over society at large”. (38-39)

In many ways this recalls a fascinating strain of idealism in the 20th century: Esperanto, Solresol, etc. That if only we could communicate better we might have fewer conflicts

”…organizations of all stripes started to recognize a pressing need to control their intellectual capital. Many of them began to see the potential value in the card catalog as a ‘universal paper machine’(40)”

“Organizations began to discover the operational benefits of filing, indexing, cross-referencing, and making data available for immediate retrieval…what we might call business intelligence…a powerful competitive advantage for corporations.(41)

Dewey established the Library Bureau…(1876)…[which] formed a partnership with Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company…that several years later would change its name to International Business Machines(43).

Leopold II: “Belgium doesn’t exploit the world…It’s a taste we have got to make her learn.“(51)

“Utopian dreams are often an occupational hazard for librarians” (59)

Just as human civilization could advance from primitive tribal societies to sophisticated nation-states, and knowledge progress from oral culture to a kind of encyclopedias, so too the countries of the world could one day advance to a postnational, global order, by embracing what Otlet called ‘“international life.‘“(59)

”…the Expo offers a window onto a moment when optimism about the possibilities of international cooperation seemed triumphant.” (68)

“That dedication to the principles of consistency and standards is the hallmark of a good cataloger, and equally indicative of a controlling and inflexible personality.”

Otlet, 1892 “Something about Bibliography”: “freeing information from the physical confines of the book.“(79)

Otlet’s willingness to dismiss the individual author’s voice…anticipates the modern search engine…such atomized information storage would allow information to be broken into discrete units. ‘These cards, minutely subdivided, each one annotated as to the genus and species of the information they contain…could then be accurately placed in a general alphabetical catalogue updated each day.‘“(81)

Previous library cataloging schemes…had relied on a linear list of single-subject headings…no one had ever proposed a mechanism for creating direct links between them.“(85)

”…an undertaking would require more than librarians. It would call for a new breed of professional, what Otlet called a ‘documentalist.’ …[who] would play a far more active role in analyzing and distributing recorded knowledge.“(97)

From Henry James to Hendrik Christian Andersen: ‘Your mania for the colossal, the swelling and the huge, the monotonously and repeatedly huge, breaks the heart of me for you…the unutterable Waste of it all makes me retire into my room and lock the door to howl!…It is so far vaster in complexity than you or me, or than anything we can pretend without the imputation of absurdity and insanity to do it, that I content myself, and inevitably must (so far as I can do anything at all, now,) with living in the realities of things.“(139-40)

“Throughout history, librarians and architects have understood the delicate relationship between knowledge and physical architecture. The old Library at Alexandria…was also built with Aristotle’s ideal of peripatetic scholarship in mind, with wide colonnades and open spaces to encourage scholars to walk with each other and engage in dialogue about whatever usual topics of interest might arise. Similarly Melvil Dewey saw his scheme as not just a classification system, but a physical map of human knowledge, specifying how the physical layout of libraries should reflect the conceptual order of the decimal classification.”

Otlet often spoke of his bibliographical work in architectural terms as we. Otlet and Le Corbusier shared remarkably similar language in their works on architecture and the organization of knowledge, using terms like “plan,” “standardization,” and “synthesis” to characterize their respective visions of an idealized future” (186)

Neurath not only “collected facts,”…he constantly looked for new ways to portray them. At one point he developed a system of “statistical hieroglpyhs” called ISOTYPE – intended to provide a universal visual language for conveying numerical information. The idea was to create a visual system that could transcend differences of language and culture, while creating a clear and compelling tool for juxtaposing related concepts. Adapting the Futura font that had been made popular by the Bauhaus movement – which embraced the clean and geometrically proportioned sans serif font for its modernist aesthetic – Neurath set about designing images that evoked the same kind of elegant simplicity. The images were intended to be modular so that two signs could be combined to form a new one. For example, the sign of “shoe (an image of a shoe, logically enough) could be added to the sign for “works” (a building with a smokestack) to denote a shoe factory. These pictographic language associations shared an important traits with Otlet’s UDC: the ability to juxtapose one concept with another by means of a semantic link”(195-96)

Neurath anticipates one of the great cultural debates of today’s networked age: the tension between top-down institutional authority and bottom-up user involvement.” ‘Isn’t it curious,’ he wondered, ‘we are constantly told that we are living in the age of technology, and yet when we enter a modern museum of natural history, there is no sign of it.‘“(199)

Physicists had already discovered the power of the atom…Otlet…discovered…breaking down recorded knowledge into its component units, then re-assembling those units into new forms – Biblions…bibliology aspires to a higher purpose: guiding the production and distribution of all kinds of recorded knowledge. The bibliologist would do more than simply gather information; he or she would enable access to every domain of human knowledge, create new works, and “provoke inventions” to help support the spread of human knowledge.” (229)

Jesse Shera: “Classification, then, can achieve its fullest purpose only after the idea content of the book has been dissociated from its physical embodiment–its codex form.”

There is no “top” to the WWW…The Mundaneum, by contrast, would ahve relied on a central administrative organization coordinating the work of local, national, and international organizations. it would also have enforced a consistent set of formats and classification schemes, while employing a small amrmy of “bibliologists” to collect and synthesize information from every possible source….Such an uncontrolled, chaotic environment would likely have struck Otlet as the grandest kind of folly; yet some Web pundits celebrate the Web’s fundamental disorder as its greatest strength.(253)

While the webs openness has fostered a great flowering of human expression, Creativity, and opportunities for collaboration and social bonding, it has also left a vast body of human intellectual energy floating unmoored in the ether.(254)

The webs architecture– flat, open, and highly distributed– stems not only from its appearance to a particular set of technical protocols rooted in the US military establishment, but from a particular string of thought about the structure of for text systems that emerged the Anglo American Computer world after World War II(254)

Bush, like Geddes, also felt that the compartmentalization of scholarship threatened to constrain community’s actual potential, by forcing them into the same rigid, deterministic structures of academic departments.(255)

Bush:” the summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate quote quote and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships (255)

Ted Nelson in “Literary Machines:” “the modern university imbues in everyone the attitude that the world is divided into subjects; the subjects are well-defined understood; that there our basics, that is a hierarchy of understandings (266)

The Semantic Web mirrors Otlet’s vision: the RDF triple serves as an example of the Monographic principle that extracts data out of their “book” encasing. The Hyperlink serves as something like a UDC call sign.(274)

Consider the widely-circulated: “Ontology is Overrated”. The scale is too huge not to crowdsource. In the end it comes down to a philosophy: Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world. A system can be wrong OR you are building something artificial and dangerously top-down

The end just versus Otlet’s vision from these cyber utopias is his belief in the positive role institutions…He saw culture as a living organism forever moving forward on the never ending path to realization. (293)