Introducer: It’s my plea­sure to intro­duce our Digital Dialogues speak­er today. Alex Wright is the Director of Research at Etsy and for­mer Director of User Experience and Product Research for the New York Times. He’s also Professor of Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts, and the author most recent­ly of Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age from Oxford University Press this year 2014.

He’s pre­vi­ous­ly led inter­ac­tion design and research projects for IBM, Yahoo!, the Long Now Foundation, and the California Digital Library, among oth­ers. His writ­ing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Wilson Quarterly, The Believer, Harvard Magazine, among oth­ers. And I learned this morn­ing that he is the author of the first Harvard Libraries web page, among many accom­plish­ments that are inter­est­ing. Thank you for join­ing us.

Alex Wright: The less said about that web site, the bet­ter. Thanks for hav­ing me. Thanks for mak­ing all the arrange­ments, it’s great to be here. And thanks to all of you for com­ing.

Photo of Paul Otlet sitting at a desk among his papers

I was going to talk a lit­tle bit today about Paul Otlet. I wrote this book about him. I thought I would share a lit­tle bit. Whenever I give this talk I always ask (I’m always curi­ous what the response will be today.) before today who had ever heard of Paul Otlet? That’s two more peo­ple than usu­al­ly ever say yes to that ques­tion. Basically very few peo­ple have heard of Paul Otlet.

The ele­va­tor pitch for Paul Otlet is he is this Belgian guy who invent­ed some­thing like the Internet in the 1930s and was then prompt­ly for­got­ten after World War II. That’s how I got inter­est­ed in him. I’ve been inter­est­ed for sev­er­al years in the pre-history of hyper­text and look­ing at sys­tems that came before the Web and see­ing if there—just in search of cer­tain inter­est­ing ideas that were left by the way­side, and look­ing at how oth­er peo­ple were think­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of net­worked infor­ma­tion spaces before the Web. And that’s what sort of led me to Otlet. Certainly the rea­son that there’s any inter­est in him today I think large­ly has to do with these ideas he had about a glob­al net­work that he imag­ined long before there were com­put­ers or mod­ern net­work­ing pro­to­cols.

I’ll talk about that in a lit­tle bit, but as I got into the process of research­ing more and more about him I found out there’s real­ly a lot more to him than that, and I want­ed to give you a lit­tle bit of per­spec­tive on Otlet’s broad­er vision, which I think is in a way even more inter­est­ing as a ref­er­ence point for think­ing about some of the changes we’re see­ing today as our lives are increas­ing­ly reshaped by tech­nol­o­gy and net­works. What Otlet offers is a dif­fer­ent way into that space, and a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about what a net­worked world could look like. I’d like to just give you a few glimpses of some of his ideas.

Also I think the rea­son Otlet’s inter­est­ing is he gives us a win­dow into a peri­od of time that’s not real­ly stud­ied all that often. There’s sort of a con­ven­tion­al his­to­ry of com­put­er sci­ence that looks at the con­tri­bu­tions of peo­ple like Charles Babbage, and Alan Turing, and some of the names that peo­ple tend to rec­og­nize. But I feel like there’s sort of an alter­na­tive lin­eage of thought that is large­ly over­looked, that has a lot to do with the way the era of net­works and com­put­ers has tak­en shape. I think a lot of that has to do with this ear­ly peri­od in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies when we start to see the begin­nings of a con­tem­po­rary infor­ma­tion explo­sion, peo­ple start­ing to work with that prob­lem, and a lot of those peo­ple are com­ing out of the library sci­ence world. I think that per­spec­tive has been large­ly over­looked in the con­ven­tion­al his­to­ry of com­put­er sci­ence. So I want­ed to use this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expose you to some of the inter­est­ing ideas that I think deserve a lit­tle more con­sid­er­a­tion.

Otlet’s dream was to cre­ate this uni­ver­sal repos­i­to­ry of all the world’s knowl­edge. He spent the bet­ter part of five decades real­ly pur­su­ing that vision and it evolved over time. But what he real­ly tried to accom­plish was some­thing fair­ly ambi­tious and all-encompassing, and of course he failed. Nobody’s ever real­ly suc­ceed­ed in doing that, but he wasn’t the first per­son to try to do such a thing. Certainly there have been, through­out the his­to­ry of record­ed infor­ma­tion, there have been peo­ple who have tried at var­i­ous times to cre­ate some sort of com­pre­hen­sive repos­i­to­ry. The exam­ple that often gets evoked is the Library of Alexandria, of course, but there have been many oth­er attempts. You can go fur­ther back to ancient Sumeria. You can look at the Vatican library in the Middle Ages. The Chinese Emperor Shi Huangdi tried to do some­thing like this. Lots of peo­ple have tried to cre­ate the all-encompassing library.

But one par­tic­u­lar pre­cur­sor I think is inter­est­ing is a guy named Conrad Gessner. He was a Swiss nat­u­ral­ist who worked in the 16th cen­tu­ry to try to cre­ate what he called the Universal Bibliography of all of the world’s pub­lished knowl­edge. And I think Gessner’s prob­a­bly the most direct intel­lec­tu­al ances­tor of Otlet. He had devel­oped this index­ing tech­nique through his work with biol­o­gy. He had basi­cal­ly tried to cre­ate a sys­tem for cat­a­loging all of the world’s plants and ani­mals. The way that he did that was he devel­oped a tech­nique of writ­ing things down on lit­tle slips of paper and then tak­ing those slips of paper and index­ing and orga­niz­ing them. He real­ized over time that the same tech­nique could be used for oth­er things as well.

So he got it into his head that he could per­haps start to use this method of using lit­tle slips of paper to col­lect bib­li­o­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion. So he start­ed to cre­ate what were real­ly sort of pro­to­type library index cards. He began this process of try­ing to inven­to­ry every­thing that had ever been pub­lished, and then he pub­lished it a a book called the Bibliotheca Universalis.

As far as I know he was the first per­son to come up with that idea. It’s a sim­ple idea, just cut up lit­tle slips of paper and write things down and then file them. But as far as I’ve been able to deter­mine he was the one who came up with that idea. And the idea real­ly start­ed to take on a life of its own after Gessner. He sort of pop­u­lar­ized that approach and in the cen­turies that fol­lowed, oth­er peo­ple picked up on the idea, one of whom was the philoso­pher Leibniz, who took that idea a step fur­ther.

Leibniz was an obses­sive note-taker. Basically any time a thought popped into his head, or he read some­thing inter­est­ing in a book, or had an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion with some­body, he would take notes just incred­i­bly rig­or­ous­ly. He would write every­thing down, and he used Gessner’s tech­nique of writ­ing every­thing down on lit­tle slips of paper.

He then devel­oped this cab­i­net. It looks like this Rube Goldberg machine, but it’s basi­cal­ly a fil­ing sys­tem where he would take all these slips of paper and file them into this very pre­cise cat­a­loging scheme that he would then use to retrieve infor­ma­tion when he want­ed it when he was writ­ing a new piece, an essay, or a book. He would use this as his kind of infor­ma­tion stor­age device.

Other peo­ple in the years that fol­lowed also came up with vari­a­tions on this sort of thing, some­times called a mem­o­ry cab­i­net, and as years went by librar­i­ans start­ed get­ting inter­est­ed in this pos­si­bil­i­ty of cre­at­ing phys­i­cal tools for stor­ing and cat­a­loging infor­ma­tion. Up until this time most library cat­a­logs had real­ly looked like the book that Gessner pro­duced. They were essen­tial­ly books with inven­to­ries of titles and authors and things on them. But Gessner’s inno­va­tion led some librarians—including there’s a guy who’s the librar­i­an in Switzerland—to come up with some dif­fer­ent ideas about how you could apply this tech­nique of using index cards.

The idea that emerged was to try to cre­ate some­thing a lit­tle more durable and a lit­tle more stan­dard­ized. So what they came up with was this notion of using play­ing cards, which at the time were wide­ly used— Back in the day, play­ing cards were print­ed on one side, so they were blank on the oth­er side, and cards were used fre­quent­ly for all kinds of oth­er pur­pos­es, like note cards, busi­ness cards, peo­ple would just use them as kind of scrap paper. But they had sev­er­al advan­tages. One, they were fair­ly durable; they were thick­er paper stock. And they were a stan­dard sized. So with index cards you could basi­cal­ly put them in a draw­er and they lent them­selves to being flipped through in kind of a random-access way.

This basi­cal­ly became the gen­e­sis of the mod­ern library card cat­a­log that most of us grew up with, a set of draw­ers with card­board cards that you could flip through. The ori­gin of that was in play­ing cards.

So this whole stream of thought was devel­op­ing over the course of a cou­ple of hun­dred years, tak­ing us up into the 19th cen­tu­ry. But there were real­ly very few libraries that need­ed any­thing like this. Most library col­lec­tions were still pret­ty small except for the great nation­al libraries, or the major uni­ver­si­ty libraries. There real­ly were not a whole lot of libraries of any sig­nif­i­cant size that required any kind of sys­tem like this.

But that start­ed to change in the 19th cen­tu­ry, and the rea­son for that was indus­tri­al­iza­tion. As the Industrial Revolution start­ed to gath­er steam, so to speak, in the 19th cen­tu­ry, you start­ed to see a cou­ple of things hap­pen. One was the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of the print­ing press itself. You start­ed to see the ear­ly steam-powered print­ing press­es that were able to pro­duce infor­ma­tion more rapid­ly than the old corkscrew press­es that dat­ed back to Gutenberg. And at the same time there’s inno­va­tions in the pro­duc­tion of paper. They start­ed to cre­ate rag paper, which is much cheap­er and more afford­able.

Getting into the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, you start­ed to see a more edu­cat­ed pop­u­lace. You start­ed to see work­ers mov­ing to cities, receiv­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion, becom­ing lit­er­ate. So there was a grow­ing demand. The sup­ply was get­ting cheap­er: steam-powered print­ing, cheap rag paper, and the demand was increas­ing with more and more peo­ple being able to read.

This start­ed to real­ly fuel the explo­sion of pop­u­lar read­ing mate­r­i­al in the 19th cen­tu­ry. This was the era of Dickens, the first pen­ny dread­fuls, the first pop­u­lar dai­ly news­pa­pers start­ed to hap­pen. There was sud­den­ly this incred­i­ble pro­lif­er­a­tion of writ­ten mate­r­i­al com­ing out. And increas­ing­ly peo­ple were start­ing to strug­gle with what to do with all this infor­ma­tion and how to archive it, how to store it. That job increas­ing­ly fell to librar­i­ans, and library col­lec­tions were grow­ing rapid­ly. Now it was not just the big research library col­lec­tions, but by the late 19th cen­tu­ry you start­ed to see pub­lic libraries, you also start­ed to see even with­in orga­ni­za­tions like com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment bureaus, were all cre­at­ing this flood of print­ed infor­ma­tion that peo­ple were try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with.

Image via Char Booth, Flickr

It was dur­ing this time that peo­ple like Melvil Dewery came along, and a con­tem­po­rary of Dewey’s Charles Cutter start­ed to devel­op more elab­o­rate cat­a­loging sys­tems to deal with this over­flow of infor­ma­tion. The idea was to cre­ate more scal­able sys­tems. So pre­vi­ous­ly most libraries had come up with their own cat­a­loging schemes that were fair­ly bespoke and cus­tom, but what Dewey want­ed to do was to cre­ate a sys­tem that could be scaled across the entire spec­trum of pub­lic libraries and oth­er libraries in the US. He start­ed to cre­ate a much more industrial-scale sys­tem for doing that, so that there were clearly-delineated rules, stan­dard­ized prac­tices, every­thing was meant to be a kind of mod­u­lar sys­tem that could be used in dif­fer­ent con­texts and he thought would cre­ate great effi­cien­cy. It was a very indus­tri­al kind of idea of cre­at­ing oper­a­tional effi­cien­cy in the way that infor­ma­tion was man­aged.

Even though he’s sort of known as this inno­va­tor in the library world, Dewey was also very inter­est­ed in appli­ca­tions of these sys­tems in busi­ness as well. So he cre­at­ed a com­pa­ny called The Library Bureau that took a lot of these tools that he was devel­op­ing like card cat­a­loging sys­tems and actu­al­ly got into cre­at­ing oth­er kinds of busi­ness equip­ment as well, and start­ed to mar­ket it to cor­po­ra­tions. He even­tu­al­ly cre­at­ed this com­pa­ny called The Library Bureau that start­ed to cre­ate these fil­ing sys­tems that could then be used in all dif­fer­ent kinds of orga­ni­za­tions. When you think about it, what he was devel­op­ing was a kind of flat-file data­base sys­tem that you could use to archive your com­pa­ny records, your annu­al reports, what­ev­er kinds of paper you might be pro­duc­ing. He even­tu­al­ly end­ed up enter­ing into a part­ner­ship with anoth­er com­pa­ny that was start­ed by the fam­i­ly of Herman Hollerith, which even­tu­al­ly became IBM, and even­tu­al­ly they con­verged. The begin­nings of IBM you can direct­ly trace to the her­itage of the Library Bureau and card cat­a­logs. So this ear­ly flat-file data­base sys­tem became very much a core part of IBM’s offer­ing going for­ward, so there’s kind of an inter­est­ing direct con­nec­tion there between the his­to­ry of the library world and the even­tu­al rise of one of the major high-tech com­pa­nies of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

So this whole stream of devel­op­ment was hap­pen­ing with the cre­ation of these increas­ing­ly scal­able, ordered, struc­tured sys­tems for orga­niz­ing infor­ma­tion that was being fed by this vast out­pour­ing of infor­ma­tion. At the same time, anoth­er cou­ple of inter­est­ing devel­op­ments were hap­pen­ing.

One was the spread of net­works. This is a map of the tele­graph net­work some­time in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. After the ini­tial spread of the tele­graph in the US, it quick­ly start­ed to spread all over the world, and you start­ed to see these net­works emerge that allowed for peo­ple to trans­mit cod­ed mes­sages great dis­tances rel­a­tive­ly instan­ta­neous­ly. At the same time, oth­er kinds of net­works were also start­ing to spread. So in addi­tion to tele­graph net­works, rail­roads were tak­ing off, the postal sys­tem was start­ing to become inter­na­tion­al­ized and this was kind of a new thing in the 19th cen­tu­ry. It was actu­al­ly not easy to send a let­ter from one coun­try to anoth­er until the mid- to late-19th cen­tu­ry. Governments start­ed enter­ing into agree­ments to stan­dard­ize com­mu­ni­ca­tion and com­merce and cre­ate frame­works for increas­ing the flow of infor­ma­tion across nation­al bor­ders.

So the topol­o­gy of net­works start­ed to take shape, it start­ed to real­ly shape the way infor­ma­tion flowed across nation­al bound­aries which, cou­pled with the increas­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion of writ­ten infor­ma­tion, let to this grow­ing exchange of writ­ten infor­ma­tion across coun­tries. And as a result, schol­ars, polit­i­cal activists, oth­er kinds of researchers, gov­ern­ment bureau­crats, start­ed to enter into asso­ci­a­tions with each oth­er in a new way. We start­ed to see the rise of inter­na­tion­al asso­ci­a­tions, which there had been very few of before the mid-19th cen­tu­ry.

You start­ed to see this ris­ing tide of inter­na­tion­al­ism influ­enc­ing a whole bunch of domains of inquiry, a lot of sci­en­tif­ic soci­eties start­ed to cre­ate inter­na­tion­al bod­ies, inter­na­tion­al stan­dards bod­ies start­ed to emerge. So there’s this grow­ing feel­ing of con­nect­ed­ness, that infor­ma­tion was flow­ing, peo­ple are able to com­mu­ni­cate across bor­ders, and it was in that milieu that peo­ple start to think about the idea of a more inter­na­tion­al­ized, more con­nect­ed world.

In terms of people’s day-to-day expe­ri­ences, those net­works were start­ing to affect the way peo­ple lived their lives. In Paris there was this thing called the théâtro­phone, which was basi­cal­ly a device that let you lis­ten to live broad­casts of the opera. You could have one in your home, Proust had one of these in his house, a lot of hotels had them. So you could get these kind of live-streaming audio broad­casts.

In Hungary, there was some­thing called the Telefon-Hirmondo. It was basi­cal­ly a dai­ly audio news­pa­per, and they hired a guy who had a par­tic­u­lar­ly deep bari­tone voice which you could hear over the tin­ny receivers to read. It was like a dai­ly news­cast that would go out and be piped into banks and hotels and things. So it was before radio, but at the time it was a way of hav­ing this kind of shared expe­ri­ence deliv­ered over a net­work so peo­ple could con­sume news in sort of real-time.

In Paris, there was a net­work of thou­sands of miles of pneu­mat­ic tubes that ran under the streets that allowed peo­ple to send writ­ten notes to each oth­er in rel­a­tive­ly real-time. This was essen­tial­ly like a giant pack­et switch­ing net­work. My friend Molly Steenson does a great pre­sen­ta­tion on this. It was all man­aged by the postal ser­vice. So you would send your mes­sage through the pneu­mat­ic tube, it would go to a kind of [grab­bing?] sta­tion, and the it would get send to its final des­ti­na­tion.

I just want­ed to present all this as kind of con­text for Paul Otlet. I think it’s impor­tant to under­stand the world that he was com­ing into, and how things were chang­ing, and how in this world he was able to begin to think about the prob­lem of orga­niz­ing infor­ma­tion in a new way.

This is Paul Otlet as a young man. Just a very brief bio­graph­i­cal sketch. He was born to a fair­ly well-to-do bour­geois Brussels fam­i­ly. His moth­er died when he was very young, and his father was an indus­tri­al­ist who trav­eled the world sell­ing tram sys­tems to dif­fer­ent coun­tries. He was going all over the world, installing and sell­ing these city tran­sit sys­tems. His fam­i­ly owned a pri­vate island in the Mediterranean, and Otlet was basi­cal­ly raised by tutors. His father actu­al­ly didn’t believe in school. He didn’t want to send his boys to pub­lic school. He thought they would just be cor­rupt­ed by that. He want­ed them to be raised in a very ide­al­ized world. So they had pri­vate tutors for most of his child­hood, and led a very inter­est­ing, unusu­al life. He and his broth­er were very into col­lect­ing nat­ur­al spec­i­mens. They cre­at­ed their own muse­um when they were chil­dren, the Musée Otlet. He was a very book­ish young man. So they spent a lot of time immersed in books and ency­clo­pe­dias and very self-directed edu­ca­tion.

Until he was about 13 or 14, when he was sent off to Jesuit school and had a very hard time there. He was very intro­vert­ed, very book­ish, and spent most of his time holed up in the library. So much so that even­tu­al­ly the Jesuit fathers offered him a job run­ning the library, since he was spend­ing so much time there, they said, Would you like to just take over the library?” So he took over the library, and quick­ly began devel­op­ing his own clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem.

Otle’s per­son­al clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem that he devel­oped when he was about 15 for his own col­lec­tion.

He began to orga­nize the books in the library, and that was his great plea­sure. He was also an obses­sive diary-keeper. I’ve seen the diaries; every cou­ple of months, he would fill up a book with these long, intro­spec­tive diary entries where he would talk about his phi­los­o­phy of infor­ma­tion, how he was col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion, and how it would all take his expe­ri­ences and orga­nize them and make sense of them, and he start­ed to glimpse this idea that he had about what it might take to orga­nize the world’s infor­ma­tion. And he was doing that at a fair­ly young age.

But after school, his father was pres­sur­ing him to take over the fam­i­ly busi­ness, so he went off to law school to try to estab­lish him­self in the world. He got mar­ried, last­ed about a year as a lawyer and and just hat­ed it, decid­ed it was just mis­ery. He couldn’t do it. But dur­ing his brief peri­od as a lawyer, he did meet anoth­er lawyer, a guy named Henri La Fontaine, who was a lit­tle bit old­er than him. They had some shared inter­ests. They were actu­al­ly assigned a project to cat­a­log all of Belgian law at that time for a lawyer named Edmond Picard. They were try­ing to cre­ate a sys­tem to cat­a­log the Belgian legal code.

After Otlet decid­ed he was done with the law, he and La Fontaine con­tin­ued their part­ner­ship and start­ed to think about how they could approach oth­er domains of knowl­edge in this way. They began work­ing on a project to cre­ate a bib­li­og­ra­phy of every­thing that had ever been pub­lished in the field of soci­ol­o­gy, which was an emerg­ing field at the time. So they start­ing cat­a­loging the soci­o­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture. They worked through that process, and then they began to think about oth­er domains. As time went on they start­ed to cul­ti­vate this idea of cre­at­ing what they began to call a uni­ver­sal bib­li­og­ra­phy. And they decid­ed that they would begin to sketch out a plan for cre­at­ing a uni­ver­sal repos­i­to­ry of all the pub­lished infor­ma­tion in the world.

Otlet was like 23 years old at the time. It was a crazy ambi­tious scheme, but he did have some fam­i­ly, he was able to choose how he want­ed to spend his time, and decid­ed that this was going to be his life’s work. His part­ner La Fontaine at the same time had con­tin­ued his legal career and was on his way to becom­ing a Belgian sen­a­tor, and becom­ing quite an influ­en­tial guy. So their part­ner­ship began to cement and take off. They actu­al­ly formed a for­mal orga­ni­za­tion­al body, and they began this project of cre­at­ing this uni­ver­sal bib­li­og­ra­phy. They took the card cat­a­log tech­nique that had been devel­oped. They had seen Melvil Dewey’s clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem and thought it had some inter­est­ing ideas. They took that and adapt­ed it.

But this is where Otlet starts to devel­op some real orig­i­nal think­ing. Otlet had spent enough time around libraries study­ing tech­niques for orga­niz­ing infor­ma­tion that he began to see the lim­i­ta­tions of cer­tain con­ven­tion­al approach­es to library cat­a­loging. He felt like librar­i­ans had been too fix­at­ed on the prob­lem of books, and that essen­tial­ly they had defined their role as orga­niz­ing a book on a shelf and putting it into a cat­e­gor­i­cal scheme. He felt like that wasn’t enough. He felt like, giv­en the incred­i­ble explo­sion of infor­ma­tion that he was already see­ing in the 1890s, that that approach was just nev­er going to scale and would even­tu­al­ly fail, and that human­i­ty would need a much more robust sys­tem in order to make sense of this pro­lif­er­a­tion of pub­lished infor­ma­tion.

So he wrote a lit­tle essay called Something about Bibliography” and in it (again he was in his 20s) he real­ly pro­vid­ed the intel­lec­tu­al blue­print for all of the work that would fol­low. He basi­cal­ly came up with this real­ly insight­ful approach which was based on the premise that you have to go inside the cov­ers of the books. The book itself is not enough; you have to go deep­er than that. He felt like there was so much infor­ma­tion locked inside of those books, and if you could devel­op a sys­tem that was able to pen­e­trate the cov­ers of a book and unlock the infor­ma­tion inside and then recom­bine that, then you might have some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing. This was his core insight that real­ly informed the rest of his work.

This is the dia­gram where he real­ly kind of lays out the whole idea. The idea’s that you have this cat­a­loging sys­tem that’s phys­i­cal­ly embod­ied in the card cat­a­log, that has cards that pull infor­ma­tion out of books. The books con­tain ideas, which come out of people’s heads, which have Lucky Charms com­ing out of their heads… But you get the idea.

This is anoth­er illus­tra­tion of his that con­veys the con­cept.

So that’s an inter­est­ing insight, but it’s not enough to just have that insight. What do you do with that? Over the years that fol­lowed, Otlet and La Fontaine began to devel­op what they called the Universal Decimal Classification. It’s an incred­i­bly sophis­ti­cat­ed, com­pli­cat­ed, almost syn­thet­ic lan­guage that tries to describe the whole uni­verse of ideas, and cre­ates a set of tools for encod­ing the rela­tion­ships between ideas. So the idea is every­thing is con­vert­ed to a dec­i­mal clas­si­fi­ca­tion scheme like Dewey’s sys­tem where every­thing is based on a num­bered point sys­tem that’s relat­ed to con­text, but Otlet’s big con­tri­bu­tion was to then say, giv­en a par­tic­u­lar top­ic that’s rep­re­sent­ed as a num­ber, you could then relate that top­ic to anoth­er top­ic by means of sym­bol­ic lan­guage. So if look [in the pre­ced­ing image], there’s dif­fer­ent punc­tu­a­tion marks, colons and paren­the­ses and quo­ta­tion marks and equal signs and brack­ets, all of these mean things. They mean some­thing about that rela­tion­ship. It’s the his­to­ry of this top­ic, in this coun­try, writ­ten in this lan­guage, these sorts of things. You can cre­ate these seman­tic rela­tion­ships between top­ics. He called them links.”

So it’s very much like a hyper­text kind of idea. You can have a whole uni­verse of top­ics and you can map the rela­tion­ships between those top­ics, and then map that back to a source in a book. And, impor­tant­ly, map the rela­tion­ships from an idea in one book to an idea in anoth­er book, or anoth­er doc­u­ment, and then you can cre­ate those path­ways through the whole lit­er­a­ture by using this sys­tem. So this was Otlet’s big idea.

In 1900, he and La Fontaine went to the Paris World’s Fair, the World Expo of 1900, which was this incred­i­ble spec­ta­cle. It must have been an amaz­ing thing to see. They basi­cal­ly raised all of down­town Paris and put up these giant pavil­ions that were made of plas­ter of Paris that rep­re­sent­ed every coun­try in the world and all these dif­fer­ent exhibits on things like indus­try and elec­tric­i­ty and you name it. The whole city of Paris was elec­tri­fied. Most peo­ple were see­ing elec­tric lights for the first time. They saw mov­ing pic­tures for the first time. Thomas Edison was there. They saw mov­ing side­walks and esca­la­tors. It must have just been mind-blowing for peo­ple. It was this incred­i­ble spec­ta­cle. It was all on dis­play in these sev­er­al square miles of down­town Paris. Something like fifty mil­lion peo­ple came from all over the world to vis­it this thing, and then they took it all down. It all just kind of dis­ap­peared. But it’s fas­ci­nat­ing. There’s amaz­ing pic­tures and rep­re­sen­ta­tions. This whole giant Potemkin vil­lage kind of thing was con­struct­ed and then it was all tak­en down very quick­ly.

But Otlet and La Fontaine were there and they exhib­it­ed their pro­to­type of the Universal Bibliography and got quite a bit of atten­tion there and met some inter­est­ing peo­ple. When the World Expo closed, they actu­al­ly walked away with one of the grand prizes for the whole thing. So they gen­er­at­ed quite a bit of inter­est that they were then able to lever­age to expand the project.

By this time, La Fontaine had tak­en a seat in the Belgian Senate and had some very strong gov­ern­ment con­tacts. They’d got­ten a lot of pub­lic­i­ty, and they were able to con­vince the gov­ern­ment to fund this project. So the project real­ly start­ed to take off. Within the next few years, they had man­aged to cat­a­log 16 mil­lion indi­vid­ual entries on their cards, doing it by hand, basi­cal­ly. They hired a staff of peo­ple to work on it, and by the mid 1900s, you were able to send in a ques­tion by tele­graph for a fee of four francs and the staff would then go answer your ques­tion and then they would tele­graph it back to you. So it was basi­cal­ly a search engine, for a fee.

Things were tak­ing off nice­ly. Otlet was start­ing to get very inter­est­ed in a bunch of oth­er things. As they were start­ing to cre­ate this cat­a­log, they real­ized that they need to fig­ure out how to gov­ern it, what was going to be the enti­ty that sur­round­ed this thing? And he and La Fontaine got very inter­est­ed in this whole top­ic of inter­na­tion­al asso­ci­a­tions. They were also see­ing, as I men­tioned, all these schol­ar­ly asso­ci­a­tions, these dif­fer­ent inter­na­tion­al bod­ies start­ing to form. They thought this could all be of a piece. So they cre­at­ed what was called the Union of International Associations, which was meant to be an asso­ci­a­tion of asso­ci­a­tions that was going to be the orga­niz­ing body that would cre­ate stan­dards and tools for all these inter­na­tion­al bod­ies to then pub­lish their jour­nals and archive all of the results in a sin­gle place.

Otlet also start­ed an inter­na­tion­al news­pa­per asso­ci­a­tion, with an eye to cre­at­ing a uni­ver­sal archive of all the news­pa­pers that were being pub­lished, and got quite a bit of sup­port for that. As this all start­ed hap­pen­ing, he start­ed to see that there was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expand the vision of this quite a bit. First beyond just the world of books, he stat­ed to see that you could take these same prin­ci­ples and apply them to any kind of media, pho­tographs, news­pa­pers, audio record­ings, movies (which were start­ing to hap­pen). He was saw you could have one sys­tem that would encom­pass all of these things, and that per­haps there could even be more of a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of this idea.

So Otlet start­ed to make some inter­est­ing con­nec­tions. There was a guy he met at the Paris World’s Fair named Patrick Geddes, who was a Scottish soci­ol­o­gist, more or less, who was very inter­est­ed in the future of muse­ums. He ran an attrac­tion called Outlook Tower. It’s a cam­era obscu­ra; if anyone’s ever been to Edinburgh it’s still there, actu­al­ly. He had this inter­est­ing idea that muse­ums could play more of a role in edu­cat­ing the pop­u­lace about the world around them, not just being places where you went to see his­tor­i­cal arti­facts, but they could have more of a teach­ing mis­sion. So he cre­at­ed these pro­to­type muse­ums called Outlook Tower that would let you learn about all of these dif­fer­ent top­ics and how they relat­ed to each oth­er.

Geddes also cre­at­ed these real­ly inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion visu­al­iza­tions he called think­ing machines.” The idea was to cre­ate these kind of top­ic maps between con­cepts using visu­al anno­ta­tion, and he was very inter­est­ed in using spa­tial tech­niques for orga­niz­ing large bod­ies of infor­ma­tion. He an Otlet had a pret­ty live­ly cor­re­spon­dence for a while, and Otlet began to real­ly build on some of these ideas to think about how he could take this uni­ver­sal col­lec­tion he devel­oped and actu­al­ly turn it into a muse­um.

The idea would be to go beyond just cat­a­loging books, to actu­al­ly cre­ate a phys­i­cal space you could walk through, where you could get exposed to all these dif­fer­ent top­ics. Eventually he and La Fontaine were able to sell this idea to the Belgian gov­ern­ment, who gave them space in this giant gov­ern­ment build­ing where they even­tu­al­ly cre­at­ed I think it was ulti­mate­ly 160 rooms where they had exhibits on every top­ic you could think of. The his­to­ry of every coun­try in the world and zool­o­gy and astron­o­my and telegraphs, it was just this crazy ambi­tious scheme to cre­ate a kind of phys­i­cal embod­i­ment— The idea was that you could walk into these spaces and get exposed to a top­ic and learn about it, and if you were inter­est­ed in going deep­er you could then tran­si­tion seam­less­ly into the cat­a­log, where you could do deep­er research into what­ev­er that top­ic might be.

He was also influ­enced by a guy named Otto Neurath, who was a Viennese philoso­pher and soci­ol­o­gist who was also very inter­est­ed in muse­um work. One of Neurath’s con­tri­bu­tions was this visu­al pic­to­graph­ic lan­guage, which he called ISOTYPEs. The idea was to cre­ate an icon lan­guage that was inde­pen­dent of any par­tic­u­lar writ­ten lan­guage. So think of the sign on men’s or women’s room doors; that’s an exam­ple of an Isotype. He also had a lot of inter­est­ing back and forth with Otlet about some of these ideas of how do you make some­thing real­ly inter­na­tion­al­ized and uni­ver­sal­ly acces­si­ble.

This is an exam­ple of one of the exhibits in the muse­um. You can see it’s not your typ­i­cal kind of muse­um dis­play. There’s not a lot of stuff behind glass cab­i­nets. These are info­graph­ics, kind of. Take a top­ic like math­e­mat­ics or elec­tric­i­ty, and sort of lay it out with a com­bi­na­tion of words and images and give peo­ple an overview of that top­ic.

sdafds

This was the tele­graph room where they had a lot of inter­est­ing devices that they were pre­sent­ing.

Then these strange con­trap­tions. I don’t even under­stand what this thing does, but it looks cool.

This is an exam­ple of some of these infor­ma­tion dia­grams. They start­ed to work with some graph­ic design­ers on the form of these things, and this was a time table of the his­to­ry of the Middle Ages where you can see it’s laid out in a time­line and then they would use this as a launch­ing point to go deep­er into the cat­a­log.

Here’s anoth­er piece that’s an overview of pre­his­toric tools. You can see there’s almost a very hypertext-like feel­ing emerg­ing here. It’s words in lit­tle chunks, blocks of text. There weren’t a lot of things out there at the time. Most books were writ­ten in long nar­ra­tive, but these are kind of like pro­to infor­ma­tion graph­ics. There’s not a lot of prece­dent for this kind of thing at this time, and I think it real­ly starts to antic­i­pate the idea of stacked col­lec­tions of infor­ma­tion that are links to oth­er pieces of infor­ma­tion in an acces­si­ble way.

So all of this was tak­ing shape, and Otlet con­tin­ued to broad­en his cir­cle of con­tacts. Eventually he made con­tact with a guy named Hendrik Andersen, who was a very inter­est­ing guy, a very sort of eccen­tric Norwegian-American sculp­tor who was best-known for hav­ing this very intense letter-writing affair with Henry James. A very odd duck, but he had some inter­est­ing ideas of his own. He was very inter­est­ed in this idea of cre­at­ing what he called a World City. It was a very utopi­an idea of cre­at­ing a new city that would serve as the head­quar­ters of a kind of utopi­an world gov­ern­ment. Andersen was liv­ing in Rome and he was very inspired by the clas­si­cal idea of Rome. This was all in the run-up to the for­ma­tion of the League of Nations, this idea that there could be a uni­ver­sal gov­ern­ing body for the world that would pre­vent future con­flict and war­fare.

So Andersen com­mis­sioned an archi­tect who sketched out this grand scheme and he and Otlet dis­cov­ered each oth­er and found that they had a lot of com­pli­men­ta­ry ideas, and even­tu­al­ly they decid­ed to join forces so that the plan for the World City even­tu­al­ly includ­ed Otlet’s uni­ver­sal library, which by this time he had start­ed to call the Palais Mondial, the World Palace. The idea was that as the World City was the phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this idea, the World Palace would be the intel­lec­tu­al heart of it where all of the world’s infor­ma­tion would flow, and be dis­trib­uted and orga­nized.

They start­ed devel­op­ing some fair­ly elab­o­rate plans for what this would all look like. Here’s a pic­ture of Otlet with a dio­ra­ma of the the World City, which includ­ed a place for his col­lec­tion. And these are some addi­tion­al plans.

Again, the idea is this is all part of a much large orga­ni­za­tion­al scheme in which all of the world’s gov­ern­ments and inter­na­tion­al bod­ies would all agree to col­lab­o­rate and par­tic­i­pate in this uni­ver­sal net­work of asso­ci­a­tions. A very ambi­tious idea.

As time went on, they con­tin­ued to evolve the think­ing about this, but by the end of World War I… Otlet was actu­al­ly very active in the even­tu­al for­ma­tion of the League of Nations. he was a real pro­lif­ic writer, he penned a lot of edi­to­ri­als and arti­cles dur­ing the war. He was actu­al­ly rec­og­nized when the League of Nations was formed as one of the ear­ly fore­bears of it. […] And at one point it looked like right after the War, they were hop­ing that Belgium would be select­ed as the head­quar­ters of the League of Nations. Belgium had been a neu­tral coun­try which was over­run and the Belgian gov­ern­ment made a big push. Otlet and La Fontaine were very involved, and unfor­tu­nate­ly they were not suc­cess­ful. The head­quar­ters of the League of Nations went to Switzerland instead, and Otlet began to become more and more dis­il­lu­sioned with the process. He felt like the League had been tak­en over by bureau­crats and that they weren’t real­ly ful­fill­ing their vision and became much more con­cil­ia­to­ry and much more about how gov­ern­ments are pro­tect­ing their own inter­ests, and the sort of ide­al­ism that he and Andersen hoped for…it seemed real­ly dis­il­lu­sion­ing.

By the 1920s, polit­i­cal influ­ence had shift­ed in Brussels as well and a more right-leaning gov­ern­ment had come into pow­er and Otlet start­ed to lose some of his sup­port, grad­u­al­ly a lot of the ear­ly progress he had made towards real­iz­ing this vision start­ed to slow down. He began to lose sup­port, his own resources became strained, and he even­tu­al­ly began to retreat into him­self a lit­tle bit, and to spend less effort on try­ing to build this thing. He spent more time writ­ing and think­ing about try­ing to fur­ther refine his ideas, and became much more inward­ly focused.

But it was dur­ing this peri­od that he real­ly pro­duced his most impor­tant work and began to real­ly think in a much more forward-looking way about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of this net­worked world that he had start­ed to imag­ine.

I’m going to share a quick film clip from a doc­u­men­tary that was made about Otlet a few years ago in Belgium by a woman named Francoise Levie. It’s an excel­lent doc­u­men­tary called The Man Who Wanted to Classify the World. This is just a short clip that gives you an idea of some of what he was start­ing to think.

https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​q​w​R​N​5​m​64​I7Y

That was 1934, so…pretty good.

So what hap­pened? Why has nobody heard of Paul Otlet? Well, as we know, a few years lat­er things hap­pened in Belgium. The Nazis marched in 1940 and prompt­ly destroyed much of his work. Otlet had already begun to retreat from pub­lic view a bit, but a lot of his col­lec­tion and archive were still there. The Nazis came in and they were quite inter­est­ed in Otlet. They read about him, they knew that he had a lot of for­eign con­tacts which they were very inter­est­ed in. They were also in the process of build­ing their own sort of Nazi library that was going to serve this big uni­ver­si­ty they were build­ing. They were attempt­ing to col­lect every­thing that had been pub­lished about sub­ver­sive doc­trines like Freemasonry and Catholicism and Judaism, and they were very inter­est­ed in see­ing what Otlet had that they could pil­fer. And they were sort of inter­est­ed in his cat­a­log, too.

But they couldn’t real­ly make sense of what he had done. It looked very chaot­ic to them. They didn’t real­ly under­stand what they were look­ing at, and they end­ed up destroy­ing most of it. They actu­al­ly destroyed some­thing like 70 tons worth of mate­r­i­al and just threw it out to make room for an exhib­it of Third Reich art.

Otlet died sev­er­al years lat­er in 1944 just at the tail end of the War and was prompt­ly essen­tial­ly for­got­ten. Although he con­tin­ued to refine his thoughts a lit­tle bit dur­ing the War. He had some ideas about tele­vised class­rooms. This would be called dis­tance learn­ing today. The abil­i­ty to project books on screens, he even­tu­al­ly had this idea that you could sit in your arm­chair with a screen and pull up a book that was stored at a great dis­tance and you could browse it.

He even had this idea for a sort of pro­to­type work­sta­tion that was called a Mondotheque. The idea would be that you could have a per­son­al­ized col­lec­tion books that you could then…

asdfadsf

This was some­body [try­ing] to recre­ate what he had in mind. It’s con­nect­ed to a radio trans­ceiv­er, and you could pull up infor­ma­tion and have it syn­di­cat­ed back to you if you want­ed to cre­ate your own cus­tom por­tal on a par­tic­u­lar top­ic.

So that’s real­ly where Otlet’s sto­ry kind of ends, in 1944. This was one of his last ideas and real­ly his lega­cy was large­ly for­got­ten. Not every­thing was destroyed. Some of his card cat­a­log did sur­vive and a lot of his papers were stored in a ware­house in Brussels and some of them were actu­al­ly scat­tered around the sub­way sys­tem for a while. There’s now a muse­um ded­i­cat­ed to him, and peo­ple still show up with reams of paper they dis­cov­ered in the Brussels sub­way twen­ty years ago and they drop it off.

But he was real­ly pret­ty much for­got­ten for about twen­ty years, until a guy named Boyd Rayward, who was a grad­u­ate stu­dent in library sci­ences at the University of Chicago sort of stum­bled on this paper trail and start­ed writ­ing a dis­ser­ta­tion about him and went to Brussels and found his office had basi­cal­ly been left untouched for 25 years. There was rain­wa­ter drip­ping from the ceil­ing and mold every­where and he went in and start­ed to exca­vate his stuff for his dis­ser­ta­tion.

At the time, Otlet was just kind of an inter­est­ing, curi­ous his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who had some inter­est­ing ideas about library cat­a­loging. It real­ly wasn’t until the 1990s that peo­ple start­ed to under­stand that what he was talk­ing about was real­ly some­thing like hyper­text. People didn’t quite know what to make of his ideas, and the pas­sages that are now so vision­ary now are over­looked until there was his­tor­i­cal con­text for under­stand­ing what he was talk­ing about. So I think he’s tak­en on a new rel­e­van­cy in the last few years, and I think he’s final­ly start­ing to get his due as one of the real fore­run­ners of the hyper­text age.

There’s now this muse­um in Mons called the Mundaneum. Mons is a town about an hour out­side of Brussels where they had tried to res­ur­rect his lega­cy. Interestingly, Google has a big data cen­ter in Mons, and they dis­cov­ered the Mundaneum and are now spon­sor­ing some events there and help­ing to sup­port them, which is kind of iron­ic. And they’re now try­ing to dig­i­tize his col­lec­tion and make it search­able, so you’ll actu­al­ly be able to find his stuff on Google; a lot of his archive mate­r­i­al is still locked in archival box­es over there.

So what can Otlet tell us about the Internet today? Well, a cou­ple of things. If you look at the Internet today… The Internet famous­ly has no top, has no orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple, it’s very bottom-up, it’s very self-organized and that’s one of its great strengths. But what Otlet imag­ined is some­thing much more orga­nized, and I think one of the impor­tant con­trasts [is] as much as he real­ly antic­i­pat­ed some­thing like this net­worked world, it’s impor­tant to note a cou­ple of key dif­fer­ences.

First, he didn’t real­ly envi­sion any com­mer­cial activ­i­ty hap­pen­ing on it. He thought maybe there would be some book­stores, but that was about it. He did not see this as a place to buy and sell stuff, he saw it as a place for schol­ar­ly inquiry and for fos­ter­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion and coop­er­a­tion among the world’s gov­ern­ments and non-profit asso­ci­a­tions pri­mar­i­ly, and as a place for pur­su­ing intel­lec­tu­al inquiry first and fore­most.

He also saw it as a very man­aged envi­ron­ment. He did not envi­sion the kind of any­thing goes, bottom-up nature of the web as it is today. He envi­sion it as some­thing that would be much more man­aged by a net­work of asso­ci­a­tions with a cen­tral coor­di­nat­ing point. And that whole idea is real­ly com­plete­ly counter to what the Internet has become or how it was real­ly designed. It was designed specif­i­cal­ly to be a flat, dis­trib­uted net­work. I’m not say­ing Otlet’s idea was bet­ter, but it is an impor­tant dif­fer­ence that he envi­sioned that we would have a lot more con­trol in place and a lot more of a curat­ed aspect where you would have net­works of cat­a­logers or experts in par­tic­u­lar top­ic areas who would decide what was to be con­sid­ered for inclu­sion in the col­lec­tion.

But that said, I think I think the mechan­ics of how he imag­ined the net­work work­ing are less inter­est­ing than the spir­it behind it. From my point of view what he real­ly offers is a much more altru­is­tic, pur­pose­ful idea of what the net­work could be. It’s one that’s dri­ven much more by a high­er ide­al of help­ing human­i­ty progress towards a more peace­ful, intel­lec­tu­al­ly ful­fill­ing world, and one less dri­ven by com­mer­cial con­sid­er­a­tions and self-gratification that was see dri­ving so much of the activ­i­ty on the Internet.

So I think it’s less about the par­tic­u­lars of like, would this be a plau­si­ble envi­ron­ment. It’s hard to imag­ine any­thing being built like this today, but I think the spir­it behind it is inter­est­ing and I hope maybe a use­ful ref­er­ence point for think­ing about what the net­work might become.

That’s Otlet at the very end of his life, and this is the book I wrote about him.

Thank you.


Audience 1: I'm wondering about the value of knowing about this to [inaudible] and also in sort of a general education sense. What would you say the value is to undergraduates from any discipline of knowing about Paul Otlet and what he had envisioned. Is this dreaming of what the Internet [could be?]?

Alex: I think at a practical level, there are some interesting specific ideas he had that are provocative, around for example the idea of different kinds of link relationships. If you think about the Internet today a hyperlink is a very sort of dumb proposition, it's just saying "this links to this." It doesn't tell you why or what the nature of that relation is. So I think there are some interesting ideas about more nuanced kinds of link relationships that I think could be interesting things to explore.

I also think a lot of his ideas about this top-down organization of information, I think there's a lot of applicability to some of the work going on in the Semantic Web space, and there are some echoes of that idea in there. But beyond that kind of stuff, I think that stuff might be interesting and useful to ponder a little bit.

But beyond the story itself just being interesting, to me anyway, I think there's a lack of historical awareness in terms of understanding how we relate to technology and I think that's partly a function of the high-tech industry [being] so forward-looking and predicated on this whole idea that you always have to be looking ahead because that's how demand gets generated for the next cool gizmo. And I think there's almost a subtle pressure that works against [] that's almost encouraging this kind of state of amnesia where we either forget about the past or kind of deprecate it in some way. And I think stories like Otlet's I hope are an invitation for people to ground themselves a little more in the heritage of where we all came from. That's just an inherently good thing; it gives you a little bit of perspective that the world didn't just change instantly in the last twenty years. There are some longer-term dynamics at work that led to the world we're in today. I think it's good to encourage people to have a little bit of a longer view of things.

Audience 2: I was wondering, when you put up the image of the folks who actually do the cards, it looked like it was a largely female, if not all-female, workforce. Is there any documentation or histories or other record of those women and the work that they did, and who they were?

Alex: It's a good question. After the book came out, a woman wrote to me whose parents had both worked on the Mundaneum project, so it was a man and a woman, and she said he had heard stories about Paul Otlet growing up. But I think you're right. I think a lot of the staff at the Mundaneum were largely women. I do not know of a lot of archival sources… I know one of them was La Fontaine's sister, but I don't know that there's a big paper trail. I'm sure there are records of their names and things, but certainly it's noticeable that they seem to be largely women doing a lot of the work there.

Audience 3: Just to follow on that. The history of early computing, of course, the first computers were women who sat in rooms and did computations, and the ENIAC programmers were all women. So I think there a really interesting connection there when looking at these alternative histories, upending out perceived notion of the history of computing. A very excellent parallel.

Alex: Yeah, obviously those people were playing a critical role [inaudible] the 16 million card catalog entries.

Audience 4: I couldn't help but think that the Internet (if you want to call it) that Otlet envisioned was one that librarians would have built. It's the kind or orderly, everything's organized, everything's classified sort of control. But my question is, you describe him as sort of having been forgotten. I think it's definitely true that he's forgotten within the sort of popular—

Alex: I would say outside of library sciences circles.

Audience 4: But, did people like Vannevar Bush or Tim Berners-Lee, were they aware of this vision?

Alex: That's the $64,000 question. I looked really hard for that paper trail. I think the best you can say is there's some circumstantial evidence that Otlet's ideas were in the air during the period when Bush was working on his essay "As We May Think." Bush was notoriously bad at giving credit to anybody else. If you read that whole essay, I think there's not a single footnote in it. It's like it all just sprang out of his head which, maybe. But there was a conference in Paris in 1937 where Otlet and H.G. Wells, who was also the famous British science fiction novelist who was very interested in this topic. Wells and Otlet knew each other and influenced each other.

Wells also had this idea of what he called the World Brain. He wrote these essay about this networked world where information would be freely available. Around this time, both became very interested in microfilm, which is what Bush was working with. A guy named Watson Davis, who was eventually the founder of ASIS, was at that conference, and he knew Bush. So there's like two degrees of separation from Bush to Otlet, but there's no footnote you can point to and say "Aha!" There's no smoking gun, but it seems like the ideas were out there, and that's as far as you can take it.

Further Reference

Original event listing at the MITH web site.

Boyd Raywards's Otlet page, with various articles and papers he's written about him.


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