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.


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.

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… 


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.