Snail-mail Google and a card-catalog Web: a fin-de-siècle Belgian information scientist’s proto-Internet.
The Mundaneum in Brussels.
ON THE NIGHT OF JUNE 1, 1934,
a Belgian information scientist named Paul Otlet sat in silent, peaceful protest outside the locked doors of a government building in Brussels from which he had just been evicted. Inside was his life’s work: a vast archive of more than twelve million bibliographic three-by-five-inch index cards, which attempted to catalog and cross-reference the relationships among all the world’s published information. For Otlet, the archive was at the center of a plan to universalize human knowledge. He called it the Mundaneum, and he believed it would usher in a new era of peace and progress. The Belgian government, however, had come to view Otlet and his fine mess of papers, dusty boxes, and customized filing cabinets as a financial and political nuisance.
Thirteen years earlier, Otlet’s Mundaneum—then called the Palais Mondial—had occupied 150 gleaming rooms in the Palais du Cinquatenaire in Brussels. Thousands of visitors a day filed through, marveling at the seven-foot-high card-catalog cabinets lining the walls of an eighty-foot-long room. Otlet and other scholars delivered lectures on topics such as “The Problems of Language” and “The Necessity for Dental Hygiene” in a thousand-seat auditorium. Scores of workers operated the Mundaneum’s search service, which employed the card catalog to answer questions from the public. The queries fielded by Otlet’s snail-mail Google, writes biographer W. Boyd Rayward, “ranged from intelligence to coagulation of the blood, from Bulgarian finances and comparative statistics for European public debts to the titles of collections of maxims and proverbs from different countries, from the philosophy of mathematics to the boomerang.”
Otlet was the first to imagine all the world’s knowledge as one vast “web,” connected by “links” and accessed remotely through desktop screens, and because of this he can be seen as the kooky grandfather of the Internet. From the beginning of his career as a lawyer and bibliographer, Otlet wrote prolifically and prophetically about how information could be organized and transmitted. He developed the Universal Decimal Classification system (UDC), an expanded form of the Dewey Decimal Classification system that assigned individual numerical subject codes to documents, allowing them to be searched and cross-referenced in a standardized manner. His later writings on information science examined the technological advancements of his time that he regarded as potential substitutes for the book: the radio, television, telephone, and telegraph, sound recordings, cinema, and microfilm (which he developed alongside Robert Goldschmidt). In doing so, Otlet prefigured the work of computer-science pioneers Vannevar Bush
, Douglas Engelbart
, and Ted Nelson
The solutions to centrally organizing and disseminating information remained out of Otlet’s grasp, as he never lived to see the promises of these technologies fulfilled. He had convinced the Belgian government of the worthiness of his grand endeavor and, perhaps more important, that its support would help the country’s bid to host the League of Nations. But after losing to Geneva in 1920, expending resources on an enterprise that occupied so much physical space while generating no tangible rewards became less and less appealing to a government in financial straits. Otlet was forced to give up the 150-room suite and move his twelve million index cards to a series of successively more humble quarters, until finally he was thrown out of the Palais.
After his eviction, Otlet moved the Mundaneum to his home, and the paid, professional staff gave way to a small band of loyal volunteers. Otlet’s wife graciously sold off jewelry and dipped into her personal savings to help finance the upkeep of the archive’s dwindling holdings. In his final years, Otlet was reduced to preserving a mountain of paper that nobody wanted. He died the night of December 10, 1944, after working in the Mundaneum well into the evening.
The Mundaneum’s staff.
The Best Grain
In 1883, when Otlet was just fifteen years old, he began classifying his papers and notes into categories such as “Literature,” “Personal,” and “Sciences.” He was an earnest and sensitive young man who hoped to perform “some magnanimous and useful task for society” and believed he could accomplish that goal by practicing law. Soon after graduating from the Free University, he installed himself in Brussels and found work as a law clerk. But legal practice didn’t satisfy his intellectual or altruistic goals. In 1891, he met Henri La Fontaine, who was directing the bibliography division of a newly formed professional association of prominent Belgian political- and social-science scholars. In La Fontaine, Otlet found the intellectual companionship he lacked in his professional life, and the two men became lifelong friends and collaborators.
During this time, Otlet laid out what would be the guiding principles of his career in an article titled “Something About Bibliography.” He believed that to make sense of the rapid accumulation of published material, avoid redundant research, and facilitate the creation of new scholarship it was vital to establish a definitive system of classification, “so that anyone can retrieve [documents] immediately in order to use them and to push ahead, to know at every moment what has been done and what remains to be done.”
Central to this belief was Otlet’s concept of the document, which extended beyond the written or printed word to include anything with evidentiary value—a photograph, a piece of music, a painting. Any document, whatever its form, should be “winnow[ed] to conserve the best grain.”
Ideas and facts would then be independent of their physical medium, allowing them to be organized into an easily searchable, universal system. In practical terms, this would be accomplished by extracting the substance of all of the world’s documents and recording it on standardized three-by-five-inch cards, either by cutting and pasting from the original document or copying by hand. The cards would then be placed in a general bibliographic card repertory and divided and subdivided by general and specific subjects.
By 1894, Otlet had amassed more than one hundred thousand cards in his bibliographic repertory, and he went in search of an efficient management structure for his collection. After obtaining and studying a copy of Melvil Dewey’s Decimal Classification system, originally published in 1876, Otlet wrote to Dewey asking for the European translation rights and permission to adapt his existing system to the needs of the International Institute of Bibliography, which Otlet and La Fontaine had founded in 1893.
Dewey agreed to both requests, and Otlet and La Fontaine quickly set to work, hosting the first International Conference of Bibliography in Brussels in September of 1895. The librarians, bibliographers, and scholars in attendance unanimously passed a series of resolutions formally establishing the institute and adopting Decimal Classification as their standard.
In Otlet’s view, the rational, scientific language of numbers and symbols used in Decimal Classification was the ideal way to express the “links, the genealogy even, of ideas and objects, their relationships of dependence and subordination, of similarity and difference.” Whatever could not be expressed numerically—whatever Otlet considered “conventional and arbitrary”—would be eliminated.
Why Should It Not Be Possible?
Otlet’s creation of the Mundaneum is one of those rare, transformative moments in history—a point when some visionary fundamentally reimagines the way we organize, reproduce, and experience information. In the preceding centuries, others had envisioned memory theaters, curiosity cabinets, and various classification systems to collect and organize cultural artifacts. But Otlet’s vision was focused on pure information, not objects, and was distinguished by its universality and its emphasis on establishing the connections between bodies of knowledge, thus providing a blueprint for today’s Internet.
Over the past few years, I have searched out such transformative moments and attempted to visualize them through drawings and installations. I found one in William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of negative-positive photography, which revolutionized the ways that images and text could be reproduced. In The Pencil of Nature
(1844), the world’s first book of photographic reproductions, Talbot relates the revelation that sparked his scientific accomplishment. Photography, it turns out, began its life as a substitute for drawing. In 1833, on his honeymoon in Italy, Talbot had tried to sketch the landscape surrounding Lake Como with the aid of a camera lucida. Unhappy with his “melancholy” results, he speculated “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible?” He went on to develop the chemistry necessary to produce photographic negatives, but his invention began as an epiphanic vision—an artistic impulse to permanently capture light and shadow. He called it “photogenic drawing.”
Molly Springfield, Melancholy Results, 2008, graphite on paper, 6 x 9 inches.
While Talbot was inspired to preserve an objective image of nature, one that would not be disfigured immediately by the hand or later by the mind, the narrator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time
suggests the impossibility of such an endeavor when he dips his madeleine into a cup of tea, stirring the well of memory. Involuntary memory of the sort Proust describes gives you back everything—“all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.” But the narrator’s mental photograph of Combray is a subjective one, unique to him alone.
Proust exalted art’s ability to reveal and express our hidden, interior worlds. By immersing yourself in and reflecting deeply on your mental impressions, aided by physical objects, you could access “the book inside.” All the information you need, and all the tools to access it, are contained within you. What Proust shared with Talbot and Otlet was a fervent desire to establish dominion over how we experience information about the world—whether through a photograph, a memory, or a numerical code. But unlike Talbot, whose solutions could be realized using available technology, or even Proust, whose technology of the self requires only time and a willingness to engage in reflection, Otlet left us not with blueprints for action so much as science-fiction fantasies—more H. G. Wells than Thomas Edison. (Indeed, Wells, just a few years after Otlet, conceived of a “world brain” that would be accessed through an “information highway.”). Otlet’s published writings and personal notebooks contain strange, charming illustrations of telecommunicative desks and spiraling structures that would house the archive. Such visions of the future rarely coincide with reality, but they are necessary because they enable later generations to expand the parameters of the possible.
The Moving Image of the World
was published in stages between 1904 and 1907. By 1907, it was more than two thousand pages. (Today, the UDC’s core version has 65,000 subdivisions and is available in a database format called the Master Reference File; the full version has 220,000 subdivisions.) As the UDC’s classification tables and card catalogs grew, so did Otlet’s ambitions. He began to see the Mundaneum “as an encyclopedic survey of human knowledge, as an enormous intellectual warehouse of books, documents, catalogs, and scientific objects” that would “tend progressively to constitute a permanent and complete representation of the entire world.” The archive would become the center of a utopian “city of the intellect,” where all the world’s knowledge would be collected and preserved, and where the free exchange of information and ideas would foster world peace. He collaborated with architects and urban planners to draw up plans for the city; when Brussels lost its bid for the League of Nations to Geneva in 1920, Otlet commissioned Le Corbusier to design a Mundaneum for that city. Though actual plans for the Geneva Mundaneum never materialized, achieving peace remained more than an abstract goal for Otlet, who experienced the heartbreak of war personally: In 1914, his oldest son, Marcel, was captured and held prisoner by German troops; Jean, his other son, was lost in the Battle of the Yser. Otlet searched the battlefield for Jean’s body, but it was never recovered.
Le Corbusier's scheme for the Mundaneum.
Page from Otlet's Traité de Documentation.
Gradually, as he fell out of favor with the Belgian government, Otlet became less concerned with the practical functions of the various bureaucratic institutions he had helped create. He focused obsessively on sustaining the Mundaneum’s collections and working on his own scholarship, which grew more and more abstract. In 1935, ten years before Vannevar Bush published his seminal Atlantic
essay describing his memex machine, “As We May Think,”
Otlet published Monde
, a further distillation of the concepts embodied in the Mundaneum. In it, he also described a communications system that “would combine…radio, x-rays, cinema and microscopic photography” and that approximates the dreams of the Internet’s pioneers:
All the things of the universe and all those of man would be registered from afar as they were produced. Thus the moving image of the world would be established—its memory, its true duplicate. From afar anyone would be able to read the passage, expanded or limited to the desired subject, that could be projected on his individual screen. Thus, in his armchair, anyone would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.
The previous year, as the Belgian government was shuttering the Mundaneum, Otlet had published Traité de Documentation, the first modern treatise on information science. In it, he writes of the “radical assumption” that
all knowledge, all information could be so condensed that it could be contained in a limited number of works placed on a desk.… The Universal Book created from all books would become very approximately an annex to the brain, a substratum even of memory, an external mechanism and instrument of the mind but so close to it, so apt to its use that it would truly be a sort of appended organ, an exodermic appendage.
He goes on to describe a kind of steampunk Jeffersonian cabinet
, a “scholar’s work station” constructed of multiple, movable surfaces and screens connected to a movable filing cabinet. From this tricked-out desk, scholars could connect remotely via a telephone-based system—something like a facsimile transmission network—to a central database.
Today’s Universal Book—the Internet—is not the "true duplicate" of our world. But it has become an “annex to the brain,” a supplemental memory, at the individual and communal level. It is both a place where the contents of the world’s libraries are being meticulously preserved and one where anyone can chronicle their thoughts and feelings on nothing in particular, for no one in particular. The former fits within the boundaries of searchable codes and terms; the latter cannot be assigned a UDC number. It is often in these indefinable, unclassifiable places, like the margins of a page, where new ideas are found.
People have a limitless capacity to shake off established categories and forge previously overlooked connections between ideas. Otlet’s tendency to neglect these possibilities—his unyielding devotion to universal classification—was his greatest limitation.
After Otlet’s death, what remained of the Mundaneum’s collections was stored in an old, damp, leaky room in an anatomy building in the Free University of Brussels. There it moldered, until it was discovered in the late 1970s. Now the Mundaneum is permanently installed as a museum in Mons, Belgium, where it is open to the public. Researchers are scanning the remaining documents. Eventually, you will be able to do what Otlet intended: contemplate the whole of creation—or at least the limited slice contained in the Mundaneum—from the comfort of your armchair.
Drawing of Vannevar Bush's Memex machine.
Molly Springfield, Kindle, 2009, graphite on paper, 22 x 17 inches.
The Marginalia Archive
We live in a world where Otlet’s vision has been realized, at least in part. The information we consume is increasingly dematerialized; many of the world’s printed texts now have digital twins that are instantly available and searchable. We no longer have to reread a book to find a single quotation; plugging a few keywords into a search engine will call it from the ether.
In the Phaedrus
, Socrates worried that reliance on the new technology of writing would lead to intellectual laziness. Rather than depending on our own memories to store knowledge, we would let ink and paper hold our personal and cultural histories and, in the process, sacrifice real understanding for the appearance of it. Socrates was right: writing (and Googling) does make us less reliant on our own stores of knowledge. But the larger point to be drawn from the Phaedrus
is that information technologies change culture ineradicably. What will happen to our intimate relationships with texts when their tactile, material forms are eliminated entirely?
A few years ago, I began sending letters to friends and family asking them to send me photocopies of texts they had annotated. Enclosed with my letter was a form asking for basic bibliographic information on their chosen text and why it was chosen. I was interested in exploring how the relationship readers have with a text manifests itself physically in the form of handwritten marginalia. Long before Internet-based social networking, marginalia enabled readers to share responses to texts with one another, and a distinctive literary culture grew up around the practice.
Page from Otlet's Traité de Documentation.
Preceding full-page images: Molly Springfield, details from Translation series, 2008, graphite drawings of photocopies of every existing English translation of Proust's In Search of Lost Time.
An eighteenth-century reader’s marginalia might have referenced other sources, and preserved the successive layers of commentary left by previous readers. Here is marginalia scholar H. J. Jackson on the culture of annotation in the eighteenth century: “Writers of marginalia at this time usually worked with an audience in mind, not a nebulous scholarly community merely, but known individuals in their own social circles.”
As contributions trickled in, I began to wonder whether I could use the accumulating submissions to populate a kind of library of marginalia in which, contra Otlet, the “best grains” would be the material traces (the underlines, doodles, and notes) of reader’s reactions, both immediate and considered. Instead of classifying the submissions by subject, I plan to organize my archive around the participants’ personal and idiosyncratic reasons for choosing and annotating a particular text. As a library, the result won’t be much use to anyone, but perhaps it will make us think about the way we record, catalog, and exchange our thoughts in an era of incessant communication, when the material products of our reading and writing are increasingly overlooked.
What follows is a sample of participant contributions to the Marginalia Archive.