Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the by Alex Wright

By Alex Wright

The dream of taking pictures and organizing wisdom is as previous as heritage. From the documents of old Sumeria and the Library of Alexandria to the Library of Congress and Wikipedia, humanity has wrestled with the matter of harnessing its highbrow output. The undying quest for knowledge has been as a lot approximately info garage and retrieval as artistic genius.

In Cataloging the World, Alex Wright introduces us to a determine who sticks out within the lengthy line of thinkers and idealists who committed themselves to the duty. starting within the past due 19th century, Paul Otlet, a librarian by way of education, labored at increasing the possibility of the catalog card, the world's first details chip. From there common libraries and museums, connecting his local Belgium to the realm by way of an enormous highbrow firm that tried to prepare and code every little thing ever released. 40 years ahead of the 1st pc and fifty years ahead of the 1st browser, Otlet predicted a community of "electric telescopes" that may enable humans in all places to go looking via books, newspapers, images, and recordings, all associated jointly in what he termed, in 1934, a réseau mondial--essentially, a global web.

Otlet's lifestyles success was once the development of the Mundaneum--a mechanical collective mind that may residence and disseminate every little thing ever dedicated to paper. packed with analog machines similar to telegraphs and sorters, the Mundaneum--what a few have known as a "Steampunk model of hypertext"--was the embodiment of Otlet's goals. It used to be additionally short-lived. by the point the Nazis, who have been pilfering libraries throughout Europe to gather info they idea precious, carted away Otlet's assortment in 1940, the dream had ended. damaged, Otlet died in 1944.

Wright's attractive highbrow background offers Otlet his due, restoring him to his right position within the lengthy continuum of visionaries and pioneers who've struggled to categorise wisdom, from H.G. Wells and Melvil Dewey to Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee, and Steve Jobs. Wright indicates that during the years considering Otlet's loss of life the realm has witnessed the emergence of an international community that has proved him correct in regards to the possibilities--and the perils--of networked info, and his legacy persists in our electronic international at the present time, captured all the time.

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689d, tabula IV and V after p. 153. 32 T he L ibraries o f B abel c­ entury, a Frenchman named Abbé François Rozier took on the formidable task of cataloging the library of the French Academy of Science. Taking Gessner’s method a step further, he not only separated his notes into individual entries, but he also settled on a more durable form of data storage: playing cards. Unlike their modern counterparts, eighteenth-century playing cards featured no decorative patterns on their backs. These blank white surfaces made them ideal for use as note cards, lottery tickets, marriage and death announcements, and business cards.

Medieval scribes had often used highly idiosyncratic methods to organize the information in their collections—visualizations, rhyming, or other bespoke methods. Secular publishers recognized that readers often wanted to locate information quickly, without having to master a new mnemonic system for each book. 7 The rising demand for books created strong incentives for publishers to streamline their production processes. Compilers of reference books would often cut and paste material directly from one text to another as a time-saving measure, sometimes even importing complete chunks of text (belonging to themselves or others).

But some, such as the historian Peter Watson, have argued that compared to the late nineteenth century we may actually be living through a period of relative technological calm. This is not to diminish the importance or usefulness of our digitalage inventions; it is rather to put them in context of a period of even more fundamental technological disruption stretching back well into the late nineteenth century. While Paul Otlet and his ­contemporaries—artists, writers, engineers, dreamers—may not have played a direct role in the development of the Internet, their work illuminates the deeper historical forces behind it.

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