Have you ever heard of Paul Otlet? I hadn’t. This NYTimes story by Alex Wright is fascinating.
Otlet (pronounced ot-LAY—French, right?) lived in the early 20th C and envisioned a global network (réseau) “that joined documents using symbolic links.” Of course, at his Mundaneum, begun in 1895 in Mons, Belgium, all he had were (clumsy) analog machines, which became bogged down in all the paper (index cards; Really!) he used to store the data. He toyed with this problem, eventually deciding “the ultimate answer involved scrapping paper altogether.” Sound familiar?
The Nazis came through Belgium in 1939, and destroyed many of the boxes of index cards. Poor Otlet died in 1944. Some cards survived, however, and a young grad student rediscovered them in 1968, and has lead a (long, slow) resurgence of interest in Otlet’s work.
Today, the new Mundaneum reveals tantalizing glimpses of a Web that might have been. Long rows of catalog drawers hold millions of Otlet’s index cards, pointing the way into a back-room archive brimming with books, posters, photos, newspaper clippings and all kinds of other artifacts. A team of full-time archivists have managed to catalog less than 10 percent of the collection.
The archive’s sheer sprawl reveals both the possibilities and the limits of Otlet’s original vision. Otlet envisioned a team of professional catalogers analyzing every piece of incoming information, a philosophy that runs counter to the bottom-up ethos of the Web.
And the picture? Oh, that’s from years and years ago when I was over in Athens working on my Master’s and an undergraduate in a journalism photography class recruited my friend Adam and me to do some jumping for one of her assignments, so she could get some action shots. À la covering a basketball game, I assume. We did so much jumping we got a bit silly.