August 1868 - December 1944

Towards the information age  


“Paul Otlet (1868-1944), founder of the Mundaneum”

The 10th of December 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Paul Otlet, a remarkable bibliographer and founder of the Mundaneum. In light of the digital revolution, his heritage is today being revisited from Brussels to Sydney.

A heritage that transcends technical progress, the work of Paul Otlet is to be understood as a part of the background of our information era.

Information architect, knowledge entrepreneur, inventor of a new form of information dissemination, theoretician of international relations, creator of a world network for intellectual cooperation in the service of peace – these are many of the facets that tell the story of a man who has remained too long in the shadows.

At the Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium, we have preserved the legacy of Paul Otlet which is being explored by scholars and others throughout the world. The mission of the Mundaneum is to situate this legacy in a continuing dialogue with the great themes of our twentieth century society.

Paul Otlet (juillet 1876)


Paul Otlet is often described as an entrepreneur of knowledge.

Paul Otlet’s father, Edouard, was an important figure in the economic landscape of Belgium.

His part in the industrial development of the country lay in the rail and tramway enterprises he set up in a number of countries across the world.

It should be noted that at this time Belgium ranked as a major world economic power.

Edouard Otlet’s great fortune gave him the opportunity of acquiring such property as the “Ile du Levant”, a major collection of works of art, even to finance an expedition to the Belgian Congo for King Leopold II.

Raised in this confortable environment, the young Paul Otlet travelled with his father throughout Europe as an easy form of preparation for assuming the responsibilities of becoming the head of a great business enterprise.

Meal in the residence at the chaussee of Charleroi in Brussels. (1885-1890)
Edouard Otlet, Sénator
Brussels. Boulevard Anspach 
Bruxelles. Courthouse
Paul Otlet (young)
L'Ile du Levant. first work of Paul Otlet (1881)

Before the age of 20, Paul already had had a solid experience of the world of publishing, libraries, and museums. 

His subsequent legal studies constituted an important asset in the industrial expansionism of Belgium in this period.  

Following his degree, he undertook a legal apprenticeship that involved among other things work on a massive compilation of Belgian jurisprudence which fuelled his passion for analytical studies. 

A child of the second Industrial Revolution, he was a keen observer of the acceleration of scientific progress and its consequences for the publishing world.

“Humanity is at a turning point in its history. The mass of  available information is formidable. New instruments are necessary for simplifying  and condensing it or the intellect will never know how to overcome the difficulties which overwhelm it, nor realise the progress that it glimpses and to which it aspires,” (Paul Otlet, Traité de Documentation, 1934, p.430).

Edmond Picard
Henri La Fontaine, Nobel Peace Prize in 1913 and co-founder of Mundaneum

Living in the world of the book, the leitmotive of Paul Otlet’s  work became the  accessibility and transmission of information.

If his father’s figure dominated his youth, other personages influenced him in important ways in the early  supportive social and economic environment in which he was situated and that led him to believe that he could realise  his various projects.

Among the most important of these  persons were the well known lawyers, Edmond Picard and Otlet’s  friend, colleague and future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Henri la Fontaine.


Curiosity, the desire to discover, motivated Paul Otlet from the time of his youth when he created a museum about the Ile du Levant and classified the books in his high school library.

To collect and to classify were activities to which he devoted himself and very quickly he realised the problems of access posed by an ever increasing  mass of books.

Bibliography seemed to him to offer a solution.

Paul Otlet beside the model of the World City. Brussel. 1943
Beginning in  1893, he and Henri La Fontaine elaborated a bibliographic methodology based on the American Decimal Classification system. They called this the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). 
Boyd Rayward, biographer of Paul Otlet
Every publication was to be catalogued and classified in a single repertory, the Universal Bibliographic Repertory (UBR), the search keys for which were both alphabetic and numeric and so accessible to all.  
Otlet was not yet 30 years old when, with Henri La Fontaine, he created the International Office and International Institute of  Bibliography to promote these methods on an international scale. 
The first International Conference of the International Office of Bibliography. Bruxelles. September 1895

On the basis of this fundamental work, Otlet later developed the idea of the Universal book which expressed his new vision of information organisation. The term “book” with the  enlarged meaning  he gave it resonates with the digital devices we know today.

The universal book was intended to integrate a new entity called the World Encyclopedia into a “network for Documentation.”

The UDC continued to be  the indexing language  for controlling all of the new in formation structures and processes he was envisaging. .

“To understand what the Mundaneum is, its architectural history, it is important to engage in a dialogue with it and to interrogate the history of librarianship, internationalism and especially Positivism in all of its spirituality.” Wouter Van Acker, Griffith University (Australia), in “Opening the Shrine of the Mundaneum: The Positivist Spirit in the Architecture of Le Corbusier and his Belgian ‘Idolators’   Wouter Van Acker (Brisbane, Australie)


The new term, the new concept,  “documentation”, which was to revolutionise  our understanding of information,  had already appeared in his work as early as 1903.

This idea of Otlet’s was that we should not limit ourselves  to works in print such as the periodical or book. The nature of the  information that had to be classified or listed determined the  medium in which it was expressed.  Image, object , spoken word were all included brought together in this new documentary category.

At the same time for purposes of information diffusion, he introduced the notion of the Universal Network of Documentation, a network for assembling, concentrating, and disseminating knowledge.

The organization of the documentation according Otlet shown in the Encyclopaedia Universalis Mundaneum
Paul Otlet published his Magnum Opus in 1934, the Traité de Documentation, the culmination of 40 years of reflection

“Over here, there are no books on the work table. In their place stands a screen and a telephone next to it. Over there, at a distance, are all the books, all the information. From there one can have appear on the screen the page answering the question posed by telephone, “ (Paul Otlet, Traité de Documentation, 1934, p428)

 "The Man Who Wanted to Classify the World" by Francois Levie
The organization of the documentation 
International center of Brussels. Collections
International Library Collective
Documentary Archive
We see emerging in the course of his work striking similarities to the World Wide Web (making available all documentary formats), a hypertexual language ( creating links between different topics and information formats), the internet or even cloud computing. Ultimately Otlet  has formulated a new vision of knowledge management that virtualises access to information, something revolutionary for his times.  
For Otlet, the telephone and the television together formed a new transmedia dynamic for information transmission: the video conference ahead of its time!

“The Mundaneum  reminds me that there is nothing new. It is always a question of rediscovery using other means, using new technologies, new capacities. The Mundaneum, the Memex, and now the Internet and the World Wide Web are only the latest manifestations. I am impatient to know what follows”   (Vint Cerf (USA), co-inventor of the protocol TCP?IP in 1974.


Seeking access to knowledge for all, Otlet sought to integrate into his encyclopaedic mission different information formats.

The Atlas Mundaeum, Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaeum, the Palais Mondial or “Knowedge in 3D” represent various ways of representing and transmitting information.

The Atlas
Atlas of Prehistoric
International Museum. Section Telegraphs and Telephones
Otlet even imagined a piece of equipment that combined the different modes of information representation and transmission , the Mundothèque. This is  kind of multimedia works station  envisaged  well before the arrival of the digital world.  In it would be integrated summary and schematic forms of display (Atlas),  encyclopedic files, the Universal bibliographic catalogue along with the communications  functionalities of the telegraph, telephone, radio and television. 


While the idea of world governance is accepted today, Otlet lived at a time when everything had yet to be created in this domain.  

Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine’s goal from the end of the nineteenth century was to organize intellectual cooperation.

In 1910 they created the Union of international Associations.

The  idea was to facilitate  peace and human progress through the dissemination of knowledge.

For this purpose they organized international congresses, published a major journal , Vie Internationale, and a comprehensive Directory that surveyed  the entire spectrum of international organizations not only in Brussels but that were active throughout the world.

Pan African Congress. 1921 (Cinquantenaire. Brussels)
Meeting of Union of International Associations. 1922 (Cinquantenaire. Brussels)
"Per Orbem Terrarum Humanitas Unita", symbol of Union of International Associations
Union of International Associations. Organization. Activities 
Directory of "Vie Internationale". 1910-1911
Meeting of the Assembly of the League of Nations. 1921

After Word War I, cooperation was naturally oriented toward the new international institution that bore all the hope of the time, The League of Nations, from which the United Nations would be born.

The International Committee on International Intellectual Cooperation of the League, with which both Otlet and la Fontaine were involved,  was the forerunner of Unesco.

Meeting of the Assembly of the League of Nations. 1928
Otlet’s idea of The World City is the architectural translation of this wide-reaching project of his. It had evolved over several decades. It proved in various ways to be an alluring idea for  the various architects with whom otlet was associated, though it remained always a utopian dream. 
International World Center. Hendrik Andersen
The path to the World City
World City

“All the things of the universe and all those of man will be registered from afar as they are created. Thus a moving image of the world is created  – its memory, its true duplicate. From afar everyone will be able to read any passage, expanded or limited to the desired subject, that would be projected onto their individual screens. Thus  from their arm chairs they will be able to view the universe as a whole or in its various aspects” Monde : essai d’universalisme, Paul Otlet, 1935, p.391.


The network is a fundamental concept for Otlet.

Collaboration, mutuality, international exchange are key words for his activities whether in the intellectual domain or in the political domain where peace is the object.

For him, working in a network linked him to a human, a philosophical reality. 

Among the numerous personalities who have collaborated with Paul Otlet are men and women concerned with scholarly progress in their different areas.

The Mundaneum Network
The intellectual cooperation network of the International Institute of Bibliography. 1914
Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) (US), was an American librarian who developed the Dewey Decimal Classification  to solve problems of arranging books by subject on library shelves.
Patrick Geddes  (1854-1932) (GB), was a Scottish sociologist  and biologist  who collaborated in various Universal Expositions between  1910-1919 and formulated new theories on urbanism 

Le Corbusier, 1887-1965 (SW) , the famous modernist architect, collaborated with Paul Otlet on an architectural project for the Cité Mondiale to be situated first in Geneva then Antwerp.

Otto Neurath (1882-1945) (AU), was one of the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivist Philosopher and inventor of a new visual language, ISOTYPE. He collaborated with Otlet on the Atlas and Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaneum and on displays for the International Museum in the Mundaneum
Leonie La Fontaine (1854-1943)  (BE), contributed to the development of the Universal Bibliographic Repertory  from 1893 and supported the creation of  feminism section of the International  Office  of Bibliography.
Ernest Solvay (1838-1922) (BE),  prominent industrialist and philanthropist, was keenlyinterested in the social sciences. He encouraged the creation of the International office of bibliography and became President of the International Institute of Bibliography in 1908.
Robert Goldschmidt, (1877-1935) (BE), was a physicist and inventor who collaborated with Otlet in the development of techniques for miniaturization of books and other documents..
Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) (USA ) this American tycoon of the Industry sustained the libraries in USA and Europe through the Carnegie Endowment. In 1913, Carnegie visited the International Musea in the Cinquantenaire.

“Otlet's work matters today not just as a kind of historical curio, but because he envisioned a radically different kind of network: one driven not by corporate profit and personal vanity, but by a utopian vision of intellectual progress, social egalitarianism, and even spiritual liberation.” Alex Wright, 2014

Credits: Story

Commissaire — Boyd Rayward, biographe de Paul Otlet
Commissaire — Stéphanie Manfroid, archiviste au Mundaneum
Commissaire — Delphine Jenart, directrice adjointe au Mundaneum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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