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Monday, December 19, 2011

Long Before the Internet: The Mundaneum


An institution was opened in 1910, with the lofty goal of collecting all the world's knowledge on 3x5 index cards - then considered "state of the art" for data storage. Called the Mundaneum, it eventually amassed a total of 12 million cards, each classified according to the Universal Decimal Classification system.  This system was the brainchild of two Belgian lawyers - Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine.

Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet.  Image courtesy of www.infoamerica.org.

Paul Otlet is considered one of the fathers of information science, a field once known as (and what he called) documentation.   He devised the Universal Decimal Classification, one of the best examples of faceted classification.  It is based on the Dewey Decimal System, but uses auxiliary signs to indicate special aspects of a subject, and that subject's relationship to other subjects.  It is commonly used in specialist libraries.  It is used for varied media, from film and sound recordings to maps and museum pieces.  A list of the number codes for this system can be found here.  Otlet is also known for promulgating the adoption in Europe of the standard American 3x5 index card, which was used in library catalogs worldwide until replaced by online public access catalogs (OPAC).  He was also influential in developing the ideas of the forerunner of UNESCO, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation.

Henri La Fontaine.

La Fontaine was the president of the International Peace Bureau, and was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913.  He proposed a world school, university, and parliament.  He also promoted women's rights and suffrage. Together with Otlet he founded the Institut International de Bibliographie, which later became the International Federation for Information and Documentation, or FID.

This and next two images courtesy of the Mundaneum.

Documentation was once a field of study whose name was changed to Information Science.  There are movements seeking to reintroduce documentation as a separate field, as it pertains to storage and retrieval.  The word is well-known in French-speaking countries where there is a difference between libraries and documentation centers, and the personnel employed at both have different educational backgrounds.


The Mundaneum was visualized as the center of a new "world" city.  Otlet dreamed that someday people would access it from their own homes.  Today it is considered a forerunner of the internet, and so his dreams, in a sense, have come true.  In a lecture in 1908, Otlet mused that the most important transformations in the future of the book would not take place in the book itself, but in substitutes for it.  He predicted that wireless technology would affect the most radical change, transmitting sounds and images unlimited by physical location and direction.  At the time he was hopeful about experiments with electromagnetic waves, although the radio and television had not been invented yet. It is in this sense that he can be considered to have "foreseen" the internet, or at least he had mentally conceived of it.


In 1895, Otlet and La Fontaine sought to collect data on every book ever published.  They also decided to amass a collection of magazine and journal articles, photographs, posters, pamphlets, and the like, which were beyond what libraries then collected.  They put this data on the 3x5 index cards.  Once housed in their first building, Otlet established a fee-based research service whereby anyone in the world could snailmail or telegraph a search query.  He got more than 1,500 a year from all over the world.  As the process became unwieldy, he realized that paper would have to be eventually replaced by something better.  He wrote a book, Monde, in 1934 which outlined his vision of a mechanical, collective brain housing all the information in the world readily accessible via a global telecommunications network.  Just as this idea began to form, the Belgian government lost interest in the Mundaneum, the collection was moved to a smaller space, and it eventually closed due to financial struggles.  In 1939, the Nazis destroyed thousands of boxes filled with the index cards, and Otlet died in 1944, most likely discouraged and heartbroken.

Card division of the Library of Congress, circa 1900-1920.

Tim Berner-Lee, acclaimed as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has said he "married" hypertext and the internet.  Although this wasn't foreseen in Otlet's day, both hypertext and the internet were concepts at the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.  Otlet's reigning ability was to conceive of architecture not just for physical structures, but also as a frame for information.  In 1934 he sketched out plans for "electric telescopes" which would allow one to search and browse through interlinked media, send messages, and share files.  He called it a "réseau", which has been translated as "network".  Ex-editor of Wired Kevin Kelly called Otlet's idea "a Steampunk version of hypertext".


Originally the Mundaneum was housed at the Palais du Cinquantenaire, part of the Royal Museums for Art and History, in Brussels.  It closed for good in 1934.  The architect Le Corbusier was to design a project to be constructed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1929, which was never built but was the cause of a theoretical argument known as The Mundaneum Affair.  Le Corbusier was intrigued enough to want to design an international "city of intellect" around it.

This image and one below of Yale's Sterling Memorial Library.

In 1968, a young graduate student came across the remainder of the original Mundaneum collection while researching Otlet.  He led renewed interest in Otlet, which in turn led to the development of the current Mundaneum, housed in a converted 1930s department store in the city and municipality of Mons, Belgium. Full-time archivists are cataloging the collection.  Although the current Mundaneum has been able to attract funding, it needs to attract more visitors.


Today Otlet and his ideas have been largely forgotten, even in French-speaking countries like his native Belgium.  A man born too early to have his concepts meet the technology they required, it's hard to estimate his influence on today's information accessibility, but clearly he was a visionary.

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Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
For the official Mundaneum site in English, click here.
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