By Jan Baetens
On August 23rd, Google celebrated the 147th birthday of Paul Otlet, one of the visionary minds whose thinking has proven crucial in the birth of the Internet. Otlet did not invent the Internet himself. Inventions are always the result of a social and collective “desire” – and I am reusing here the key word of the seminal book by Geoffrey Batchen, Burning With Desire (MIT, 1997), on the dream of photography before the technique was actually developed and eventually commercialized (or given away for free: nothing new under the sun).
Otlet’s dream to foster world peace and understanding between nations through information and communication could only take a pre-digital form when he established his Mundaneum, a searchable index cards system on which he worked during the first decades of the 20th Century (in this context, he also introduced many important technical innovations in the field of information storage and retrieval, for instance in the UDC system or, more prosaically, the ideal size and form of the index card and library furniture).
As demonstrated by Markus Krajewski in his World Projects (Minnesota UP, 2014), the craving for global information systems was already a major feature of Western culture around 1900, and Otlet was just one of the many revolutionary thinkers eager to supersede the divide of languages, media, currencies, disciplines, and national frontiers. Institutionally speaking, most of these thinkers were not very successful. They worked in the margins of the established knowledge production centers, often with little political and ideological support from the decision-makers.
If the case of Paul Otlet is so fascinating, it is not only because of his truly visionary thinking, but also because of the possibility we have now to rediscover his intellectual and material heritage in all its complexity. The City of Mons, European Capital of Culture in 2015, hosts the essential pieces of what is left of the Mundaneum –the heart of the “ideal city” of culture, research and information Otlet wanted to build from scratch with the help of Le Corbusier. It is hosted by a wonderful museum that combines an impressive reconstruction of Otlet’s working space with thematic organizations on knowledge and media communication. And Paul Otlet’s major scientific publication, his Treatise on Documentation, has just been republished in a well-designed facsimile edition. It is an amazing document, not only for those working on the history of science, as well as an excellent preparation for a city trip to Mons (don’t miss Mons 2015, you will regret it!).
Paul Otlet, Le livre sur le livre. Traité de documentation (with prefaces by Benoît Peeters, Sylvie Fayet-Scribe and Alex Wright). Brussels : Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2015. (http://www.lesimpressionsnouvelles.com/catalogue/le-livre-sur-le-livre/)