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

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

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 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 réseau 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.

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

About 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.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1. The Libraries of Babel 2. The Dream of the Labyrinth 3. Belle Epoque 4. The Microphotic Book 5. The Index Museum 6. Castles in the Air 7. Hope, Lost and Found 8. Mundaneum 9. The Collective Brain 10. The Radiated Library 11. The Intergalactic Network 12. Entering the Steam Conclusion

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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.