In Cataloging the World, Alex Wright introduces us to a figure who stands out in the long line of thinkers and idealists who devoted themselves to the task. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Paul Otlet, a librarian by training, worked at expanding the potential of the catalog card, the world's first information chip. From there followed universal libraries and museums, connecting his native Belgium to the world by means of a vast intellectual enterprise that attempted to organize and code everything ever published. Forty years before the first personal computer and fifty years before the first browser, Otlet envisioned a network of "electric telescopes" that would allow people everywhere to search through books, newspapers, photographs, and recordings, all linked together in what he termed, in 1934, a reseau mondial--essentially, a worldwide web.
Otlet's life achievement was the construction of the Mundaneum--a mechanical collective brain that would house and disseminate everything ever committed to paper. Filled with analog machines such as telegraphs and sorters, the Mundaneum--what some have called a "Steampunk version of hypertext"--was the embodiment of Otlet's ambitions. It was also short-lived. By the time the Nazis, who were pilfering libraries across Europe to collect information they thought useful, carted away Otlet's collection in 1940, the dream had ended. Broken, Otlet died in 1944.
Wright's engaging intellectual history gives Otlet his due, restoring him to his proper place in the long continuum of visionaries and pioneers who have struggled to classify knowledge, from H.G. Wells and Melvil Dewey to Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee, and Steve Jobs. Wright shows that in the years since Otlet's death the world has witnessed the emergence of a global network that has proved him right about the possibilities--and the perils--of networked information, and his legacy persists in our digital world today, captured for all time.
- ISBN-13: 9780199931415
- ISBN-10: 0199931410
- Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
- Publish Date: June 2014
- Page Count: 350
- Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 1.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.05 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-04-21
- Reviewer: Staff
In this enlightening profile, Wright (Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages) revives and contextualizes the now largely forgotten work of “visionary information theorist” Paul Otlet. He begins at the end of Otlet’s life in December of 1940 as his life’s work—a “Universal Bibliography,” organized with his own “Universal Decimal Classification” designed to reference and collate all human knowledge—was being dismantled by the Nazi occupiers of Brussels. Otlet had worked throughout his life to create these and precursor entities with the unshakable belief that ready access to all human knowledge would be crucial to world peace under an international government. Otlet described his vision for this network as a series of “workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen... connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources.” Despite his determination and wide range of contacts, Otlet’s vision never came to fruition and, as Wright chronicles in his final two chapters, had little influence on those who did finally succeed in creating an international information network. Still, Wright is certain that “Otlet’s vision for an international knowledge network... points toward a more purposeful vision of what the global network could yet become,” and his biography could help set that in motion. (June)