24 January 2015


Alex Wright. Cataloging the World. Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Alex Wright's book is a great introduction to Paul Otlet's life and he provides a thorough overview of its historical context and how it relates to our Internet Age. Otlet (1868-1944) was an idealistic thinker who devoted his life to organising knowledge for the enhancement of humanity.
It was his concept to organise all the world's information from audio recordings, films, photographs, magazines, journals, books to newspapers that would be accessed through a network of 'electric telescopes' and organised by the collective brain of the Mundaneum.

The scale of this introverted librarian’s vision is shown by the fact that his universal bibliography of world knowledge ran to 12 million entries. He aim was to share this knowledge as widely as possible, and by 1912 he had a team of workers and an enormous filing system, which dealt with 1,500 requests for information a year through mail-order.

Beyond indexing and classifying all the world’s information on filing cards using his Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) system, he envisaged workstations (Mondotheques as he called them) that would incorporate the latest technology (radio, TV, telephone, phonograph, film) to link them with the central Mundaneum. Otlet even envisaged the Mundaneum, the pool of all knowledge, being enshrined in a glorious world city. As Wright puts it: ‘He saw these developments as fundamentally connected to a larger utopian project that would bring the world closer to a state of permanent and lasting peace and toward a state of collective spiritual enlightenment.’


The means for creating such a global system in the early half of the twentieth century was based on using cumbersome index systems and analog machines but it was a vision of what has now been created by the Internet. However, it is doubtful that he would approve of the fact that this information isn't organised and filtered by his concept of a global brain that would be freely available to everyone, and would inspire a higher collective conscious that would transcend political boundaries and promote a world state.

When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940 they were distinctly unimpressed with what they regarded as his collection of trivial junk, and promptly destroyed 63 tons of journals, posters, pamphlets and books that consisted of the core of his colllection. His dream, so carefully constructed over the decades, now withered and died. Knowledge is power but in this case the jackboot of the Third Reich was able to swiftly stamp out these grand ideas for librarians to control and rule the world of knowledge.

In the context of ufology it is worth noting that more files, books and archives are being made available online but as Otlet knew the problem is being able to classify, search and make sense of this data. Peter Rogerson’s INTCAT project is a bold attempt at making sense of UFO close encounters, which is a shining example of what can be done with this data. Isaac Koi has also worked hard to put freely available searchable collections of UFO journals and related material online. Whether much progress is done with all this data is another matter, especially since ufology has largely degenerated into speculating about the latest images on YouTube or campaigning about disclosure. -- Nigel Watson.

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