The story of Paul Otlet (1868-1944), Belgian librarian and utopian visionary, who, long before the digital age, dreamed of a worldwide repository of media, accessible to all.
As Wright (Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, 2007), New York Times director of user experience and product research, explains in this shrewd, brisk biography, cataloging books was only one of Otlet’s aims—he “saw little distinction between creating a new classification of human knowledge and reorienting the world’s political system.” Partnering with Henri La Fontaine, winner of the 1913 Nobel Peace Prize, and eventually involving architect Le Corbusier, Otlet envisioned a site for collecting all knowledge: “any object manifesting any kind of graphic symbols—letters, numbers, images—captured in any form of media in order to express any form of human thought.” The Palais Mondial was a start, a 36-room exhibition space with a huge lecture hall and commodious library, where researchers worked to fulfill individuals’ requests for information, some stored on the new invention of microfilm. But Otlet wanted more: a Mundaneum—“a World City that might stand at the center of a new world government.” Knowledge, Otlet believed, was inextricably intertwined, and intellectual communities, working collectively, could achieve social, political and cultural progress: “a new international political system, a monetary policy designed to ensure the fair distribution of wealth, a judicial system, [and] a global language,” all “in the service of humanity.” The Palais Mondial, initially supported by the Belgian government, was ultimately undermined by war, political controversy, the stock market crash and European turmoil. With his plans for a Mundaneum quashed, Otlet turned to writing, insisting on the moral and ethical implications of an information network, “the possibility of a technological future driven not by greed and vanity, but by a yearning for truth, a commitment to social change, and a belief in the possibility of spiritual liberation.”
Wright ends his illuminating story in the present, where Otlet’s thoughts about the connection of information to knowledge, and knowledge to insight, are still urgent.