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.
A MAN IN A PERIOD OF CHANGE
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.
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).
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.
ARCHITECT OF KNOWLEDGE
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.
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)
FATHER OF A NEW DISCIPLINE: DOCUMENTATION
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.
“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 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.
CREATOR OF A NEW FORM OF INFORMATION DISSEMINATION
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.
THEORICAN OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
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.
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.
“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.
A MAN CREATING A GLOBAL NETWORK
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.
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.
“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
Commissaire — Boyd Rayward, biographe de Paul Otlet
Commissaire — Stéphanie Manfroid, archiviste au Mundaneum
Commissaire — Delphine Jenart, directrice adjointe au Mundaneum