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Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age
     

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age

5.0 1
by Alex Wright
 

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The dream of capturing and organizing knowledge is as old as history. From the archives of ancient Sumeria and the Library of Alexandria to the Library of Congress and Wikipedia, humanity has wrestled with the problem of harnessing its intellectual output. The timeless quest for wisdom has been as much about information storage and retrieval as creative genius. In

Overview

The dream of capturing and organizing knowledge is as old as history. From the archives of ancient Sumeria and the Library of Alexandria to the Library of Congress and Wikipedia, humanity has wrestled with the problem of harnessing its intellectual output. The timeless quest for wisdom has been as much about information storage and retrieval as creative genius. In Cataloging the World, Alex Wright introduces us to a figure who stands out in the long line of thinkers and idealists who devoted themselves to the task. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Paul Otlet, a librarian by training, worked at expanding the potential of the catalog card, the world's first information chip. From there followed universal libraries and museums, connecting his native Belgium to the world by means of a vast intellectual enterprise that attempted to organize and code everything ever published. Forty years before the first personal computer and fifty years before the first browser, Otlet envisioned a network of "electric telescopes" that would allow people everywhere to search through books, newspapers, photographs, and recordings, all linked together in what he termed, in 1934, a r?seau mondial--essentially, a worldwide web. Otlet's life achievement was the construction of the Mundaneum--a mechanical collective brain that would house and disseminate everything ever committed to paper. Filled with analog machines such as telegraphs and sorters, the Mundaneum--what some have called a "Steampunk version of hypertext"--was the embodiment of Otlet's ambitions. It was also short-lived. By the time the Nazis, who were pilfering libraries across Europe to collect information they thought useful, carted away Otlet's collection in 1940, the dream had ended. Broken, Otlet died in 1944. Wright's engaging intellectual history gives Otlet his due, restoring him to his proper place in the long continuum of visionaries and pioneers who have struggled to classify knowledge, from H.G. Wells and Melvil Dewey to Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee, and Steve Jobs. Wright shows that in the years since Otlet's death the world has witnessed the emergence of a global network that has proved him right about the possibilities--and the perils--of networked information, and his legacy persists in our digital world today, captured for all time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
04/21/2014
In this enlightening profile, Wright (Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages) revives and contextualizes the now largely forgotten work of “visionary information theorist” Paul Otlet. He begins at the end of Otlet’s life in December of 1940 as his life’s work—a “Universal Bibliography,” organized with his own “Universal Decimal Classification” designed to reference and collate all human knowledge—was being dismantled by the Nazi occupiers of Brussels. Otlet had worked throughout his life to create these and precursor entities with the unshakable belief that ready access to all human knowledge would be crucial to world peace under an international government. Otlet described his vision for this network as a series of “workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen... connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources.” Despite his determination and wide range of contacts, Otlet’s vision never came to fruition and, as Wright chronicles in his final two chapters, had little influence on those who did finally succeed in creating an international information network. Still, Wright is certain that “Otlet’s vision for an international knowledge network... points toward a more purposeful vision of what the global network could yet become,” and his biography could help set that in motion. (June)
From the Publisher
"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 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.'... 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." —Kirkus Reviews

"Alex Wright has placed Paul Otlet's life and work in up-to-this-minute context to bring us the illuminating biography of a pioneering information activist whose grand vision of a world of universal knowledge, freely available to all, is here to remind us that we would be foolish to settle for anything less." —George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral

"This wonderful, carefully researched, and well-written book draws us into the question: to what extent does the ambitious work of Paul Otlet make him the prophetic analog father of the Internet? Alex Wright is careful not to overstate the significance of Otlet. But the ambiguity of Otlet's influence, not to mention his long and eventful life and passionate dreams of world peace, in fact makes him more, not less, interesting." —Charles B. Strozier, Professor of History at John Jay College and the Graduate Center at The City University of New York, and author of Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst

"Alex Wright's beautifully written book illuminates the life and work of Paul Otlet, one of a group of information theorists and utopians whose achievements during the early part of the last century prefigure the digital world, and whose innovation underpin the 'information society' in which we live. Cataloging the World is a lively, sympathetic but rigorous exploration of the ways in which what might seem merely of historical interest proves of immediate and engrossing relevance." —W. Boyd Rayward, University of Illinois and University of New South Wales

"With profound insight, Alex Wright reveals that within the labyrinth of Paul Otlet's Mundaneum lies hidden an anticipation of the hyperlinked structure of today's Web. This is not only a captivating biography of Otlet's prophetic vision of a global networked information system but a vivid account of how similar systems took shape in the minds of Conrad Gessner, Leibniz, Vannevar Bush, Tim Berners-Lee, and many others." —Wouter Van Acker, Griffith University

"Finally a historical study of the Information Age not starting with Vannevar Bush. Alex Wright's balanced study of Paul Otlet's dream to catalogue the world as one of the many successive projects of unifying knowledge on a global level is a joy to read after the autohagiographies of engineers that claimed their share in the 'invention' of the Internet and World Wide Web in purely computer-and-information-technical terms." —Dr. Charles van den Heuvel, University of Amsterdam

"An excellent study of a Belgian, Paul Otlet, who in the late nineteenth century began 'a vast intellectual enterprise that attempted to organize and code everything ever published'... Relevant of course to the origins of the web, Wikipedia, and current sites such as Vox.com." —Marginal Revolution

"A remarkable read in its entirety, not only in illuminating history but in extracting from it a beacon for the future." —Brain Pickings

Kirkus Reviews
2014-03-30
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199354207
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
05/06/2014
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
File size:
8 MB

Meet the Author

Alex Wright is a professor of interaction design at the School of Visual Arts and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He is the author of Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages.

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Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
A_Sloan More than 1 year ago
Before Google: Kicking off the Information Age The desire to organize information seems innate, especially when you consider what lengths people have gone to do it. Alex Wright uncovers the life of one man who was passionate about capturing the world's knowledge in Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. Wright portraits Otlet as a librarian with a simple goal: to expand our use of the card catalog. His hope was that he could connect his home in Belgium to the rest of the world; however, his endeavor encompassed much more than this. This book also explores his creation of a Mundaneum, which was meant to hold everything that had ever been printed. His invention would allow "everyone from his armchair to contemplate creation" with images and text "projected on an individual screen." His dreams were big and so close to what has come to be. Unfortunately, he lost his greatest achievement to the Nazis in 1940 and died just four years later. Cataloging the World is well-researched without feeling dry. Wright's style is easy to read and engaging, and his overarching idea about humanity's quest for wisdom is most intriguing. Compared to his first book, Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages, I find this one superior. With so little known about Otlet, this is an excellent resource that explores his character and shares the history of collecting knowledge.