Profile: Paul Otlet

Born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1868. He is considered the father of information management and documentation, and also the first contributor to the creation of the Science of Information.

Otlet worked with organizing structures of information that could be considered as the earliest precedent of the World Wide Web. He spent his entire life trying to conceive search engines that could establish hyper-connections between all existing information.

He dreamed of the creation of an infinite network of information that could contain and interconnect the whole body of human knowledge. This was the first artificial conception of a hyperlink model of infogathering – infosharing. He searched tirelessly for an answer to the problem of how to make the whole record of knowledge available to those who need it? It seems that Otlet’s design of info-organization has a strong relation with the hologram, akasha and aether models.

Co-founder of the Institut International de Bibliographie in 1895 that later became the International Federation for Documentation and Information. He and La Fontaine, also created the Union of International Associations still working in Brussels. Otlet was a humanitarian activist and many of his ideas were crucial in the formation of the League of Nations, later the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation.

Along his years, he showed a deep and sincere concern to find a way to make information available for everyone who needed it, and was a true believer in the possibility of creating a “universal book”. He wrote various essays related to the organization of knowledge and these were compiled in two books: “The traite of documentation” in 1934, which had a central roll in the development of Information Science and “Monde: Essai d universalisme” in 1935.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Otlet designed a highly advanced index cards machine: “a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards.This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between one another, “the connections each [document] has with all other [documents], forming from them what might be called the Universal Book.”

Alex Wright, article Forgotten Forefather Paul Otlet.


Created around 1910 by Paul Otlet with the help of Henry La Fontaine. It intended to be a kind of information holo-center that could contain and share all the knowledge gathered along human history. Each component of this infinite (permanently being fed) data, would be interconnected forming a kind of open info-matrix. Eventually the  project was able to constitute an archive with almost 13 millions of documents and index cards.

The Mundaneum was located at the Palais du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Later Le Corbusier was commissioned by Otlet to design an ideal place for the purpose. This was planned to be constructed in Geneva in the year of 1929 but was never built. During World War II the archive was forced to move to a building in the Parc Leopold by the germans. After Otlet’s death in 1944 the Mundaneum collection was partially forgotten until 1993 when it was transformed into a museum and archive as a tribute to Otlet and La Fontaine works.

The ultimate goal of the Mundaneum was to serve as a centerpoint in the creation of a “new city of the intellect” that included social participation of people from around world’s societes. This project is considered as a conceptual seed for the actual structure of the Internet. Otlet conceived almost one century ago many of the main concepts that determinate the actual worldwide shared cyber net.

“Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts.”

Monde: Essai d universalisme 1935


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2 Responses to “Profile: Paul Otlet”

  1. The Birth of the Web — Belgium, 1934 « NotionsCapital Says:

    […] Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and his friend lawyer Henri La Fontaine began a project to create a universal bibliography of all published books, which eventually received the backing of the Belgian government and even the League of Nations, which held that equal access to the world’s knowledge would preserve world peace. […]

  2. Tecno monumento a la noosfera londinense: Nube Digital Juegos Olímpicos 2012 | Pijamasurf Says:

    […] cierto modo recuerda al épico Mundaneum, proyecto ideado por el  genio de la información belga, Paul Otlet, a principios del siglo XX, buscaba compilar, y hacer accesible de manera práctica, toda la […]

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