Home > Professional activities > Paul Otlet: The pre-Bush Vannevar Bush

Paul Otlet: The pre-Bush Vannevar Bush

Folks in CS and HCI love to point to Vannevar Bush as the father of all things Internet and Web related. But even fathers have fathers who set the stage for not-ready-for-prime-time ideas. Paul Otlet can be viewed in that role: a visionary from the early 1900s with a functional search engine–and a plan for an electronic interface to visualize the interconnections in knowledge.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Otlet established a “Mundaneum” (yes, an unfortunate name), a knowledge repository consisting of millions of facts drawn from the literature of the time. Want to Google something in the early 20th century? You could “Otlet” it–mail in your request with a small fee, and get back one or five or twenty or fifty “hits” in response, each on a 3×5 card. He envisioned indexing all knowledge across different media, with access through a phone/screen interface supporting the comparison of many interrelated sources.

To me, a key element of Otlet’s vision resides in knowledge capture not at the level of a document, but at the level of the individual information chunks within the document. It is at this level that Otlet created interconnections between knowledge, such that no one piece of knowledge was an end point but rather a hub to other information. He classified information chunks into four categories: facts, interpretation of facts (opinions?), statistics, and sources. The chunks were linked and ranked in various ways–by topic, by public opinion, by Universal Decimal Classification–into a linked web-like “réseau” that aspired to be informational and social.

There’s a number of good Otlet and Otlet-related books and papers out there. A couple that appealed to me: NY Times editor Alex Wright’s book “Glut” has a large section overviewing Otlet’s work (in the context of other information management efforts) that draws from several of his NYT pieces, and Boyd Rayward has written a number of books and articles on Otlet (much of it pre-internet, though check out his “Visions of Xanadu” article). And there’s material on Wikipedia on Otlet and the Mundaneum that is a great starting point.

Alas, Otlet was all the rage in his home country of Belgium for a while, but died in poverty in 1944 after watching his collection be shifted into increasingly smaller quarters then be carted away by the Nazis. He was all the rage for several decades though (much longer than, say, Google has been around!). The Mundaneum collapsed in part due to the explosion of information that was to be cataloged. And before you smugly say that such a thing will never happen in this digital age to the Googles of the world, consider whether it’s truly possible to index and cross-reference and meaningfully collect user opinion on every word and phrase and pixel and individual utterance in every document and video and security camera and satellite image and telescopic image that is collected. And if that’s not possible, where do we draw the line? And if there’s a line, there will surely be a next technology–the next Google–to surpass what the current one can do.

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  1. Lauren bush
    April 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I am Vannevar Bush’s great granddaughter daughter of Richard Perry I enjoyed your article, my great grandfather’s name is still alive

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