Otlet, Mundaneum, Classification, Books, and the Web

The New York Times today posts an interesting story about Paul Otlet, who in 1934 (before Vannevar Bush) proposed a prototype with various resemblances to the web. Otlet’s “réseau” (he wrote in French) included interlinked browsing of documents, images, and files, sharing of files, and social networking.

The title of Wright’s article, “The Web Time Forgot,” suggests the bent of this article on the Mundaneum Museum in Mons, which despite its emphasis on the work of this unknown web pioneer might also be classified under the Times section “Books” rather than under its current web sections “Science” and “Technology.” It would fit in the former section, and the article profiles a museum and a pioneer of information organization technology. The article describes card catalogs, provides a brief biography of the man (including the destruction of most of Otlet’s work by the Third Reich), and charts the correspondences between his seminal ideas and the Semantic Web.

One of the article’s most thoughtful observations is the following: “Just as Otlet’s vision required a group of trained catalogers to classify the world’s knowledge, so the Semantic Web hinges on an elite class of programmers to formulate descriptions for a potentially vast range of information. For those who advocate such labor-intensive data schemes, the fate of the Mundaneum may offer a cautionary tale.” The classification of the article–rather, its nonclassification in one section of the Times–offers yet another caution. The newspaper does not classify the article under “Books”: the oversight (in sense both of careful observation and error) speaks volumes about our conceptual split between books as paper objects (as well as the business of publishing and distributing them) and information as an abstraction tenuously related to its material form.

In digital space it only takes a link to re-classify “The Web Time Forgot” into another conceptual category. But that alternate conceptual category seems not to have suggested itself. The article is an altogether pleasing piece, one that will doubtless inform a wider range of scholars about a history that deserves greater attention. Maybe it’s time for me to open my Digg account and invest a bit in social capital by classifying this article, with every keyword that strikes my fancy. If I’ve with this post created a moral obligation to do so, then today’s inaction will have to be added to my many failings.

Edward Van Houtte just posted a marvelous piece that compares Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and, interestingly, Bush’s revision of his own ideas.

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