The Old Informs the New : Paul Otlet (1868-1944)

     In the midst of our modern, technology-fixated culture, there is a tendency to believe that the process of tabulating and indexing vast amounts of information are new endeavors. Hayes (2015) provided an interesting historical perspective on this belief:

To put all human knowledge at everyone’s fingertips— that was the grandiose vision of Paul Otlet, a Belgian librarian and  entrepreneur. Starting in the 1890s, he copied snippets of text onto index cards, which he classified, cross-referenced, and filed in hundreds of wooden drawers. The collection eventually grew to 12 million cards, tended by a staff of ‘bibliologists’ … The archive in Brussels was open to the public, and queries were also answered by mail or telegram. In other words, Otlet was running a search engine 100 years before Google came along. (184)

Paul Otlet’s goal was remarkably ambitious. He began this process of creating a “Universal Bibliographic Repertory” in 1895 and devoted fifty years of his life to this pursuit (Wikipedia: Paul Otlet 2016).  At a very basic level, using the resources available at the time, Otlet was engaging in the processes of crawling and indexing. The crawling process involved collecting books, newspapers, magazines, journals and other sources of information.  Indexing (quite literally) took the form of cataloguing vast amounts of information on index cards that were stored in a huge collection of filing cabinets.  As the indexing process developed, participating librarians responded to requests for information (in the form of letters and telegrams) and, in response, returned copies of relevant index cards by mail.  By 1896, the participating librarians processed 1,500 requests for information from the Universal Bibliographic Repertory (Wright 2014)!

Alex Wright, in his thoughtful and insightful story of Paul Otlet and his tireless pursuit of a personal mission, quotes Otlet and his amazing vision on the level at which he predicted that information would be available in the future:

Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way, a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts. (Wright 2014, 391)

Paul Otlet: Der 1868 geborene Belgier ist einer der lŠngst vergessenen Technikpioniere. Dieses Bild zeigt ihn 1932.
Paul Otlet: Der 1868 geborene Belgier ist einer der lŠngst vergessenen Technikpioniere. Dieses Bild zeigt ihn 1932.

Imagine how Paul Otlet would feel today if he were given access to a computer with an opportunity to search the Internet.  In many ways, the Internet embodies his vision of “…an inventory of all that has been written at all times, in all languages, and on all subjects” (Otlet, as quoted in Rayward, 1975, 113).  The work of Otlet and his colleagues manually foreshadowed the work done by today’s search engines.

The Old Informs the New : Paul Otlet (1868-1944)

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