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Otlet Day One

I’m traveling for my brother’s graduation from Wesleyan, then on for an apartment hunting trip to California.

So the auto-updater is going to leave you with some thoughts from Paul Otlet, a fascinating character from the history of information science. While most people discuss Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson as visionaries who in many ways anticipated our current information systems, Otlet many decades before (1920’s and 1930’s and earlier) had a bold vision of the future of information. Some of it seems prescient, some of it I disagree with strongly, but almost all of it is very interesting.

(For a quick background, see the Forgotten Forefather: Paul Otlet from Boxes and Arrows.)


“Books, brochures, and journal articles appear nowadays apparently as the products of chance. Everyone has freedom to publish on any subject, in any manner, in any form, in any style, consequently, to clutter up the field of documentation with vauge and useless productions which have nothing seriously new to say as to substance and which represent no improvement as to form. Should we not impose a doctrince of “moral restraint” in the sphere of the book where an overwhelming and truly harmful proliferation is rampant. In fact, no one would dream of suppressing or even limiting this precious freedom of writing, a necessary corollary of freedom of thought, which is, itself, nothing more than the fundamental right of intellectual life, action, and procreation. But the task of organising this freedom by means of appropriate institutions, just as political institutions and codes of law have organised other freedoms, falls to thsoe who are aware of the problem.

Individual publications will continue to appear quite independently of each other. They will retain their characteristics of being seperate, idiosyncratic and poorly related to the whole body of knoweldge itself. But paralleling the innumeralbe books published on the subject-matter of the discipline, will be drawn up the “Universal Book” of that discipline. This Book, the “Biblion”, the Source, the permanent Encyclopedia, the Summa, will replace chaos with a cosmos. It will constitute a systematic, complete and current registration of all the facts relating to a particular branch of knowledge. It will be formed by linking together materials and elements scattered in all relevant publications. It will comprise inventories of facts, catalogues of ideas and the nomenclature of systems and of theories. It will condense various scientific data into tables, diagrams, maps, schemas. It will illustrate them by drawings, engravings, facsimiles, and documentary photographs. It will be like a great cadastral survey of learning, in which all developments in knowledge will be reported and recorded day by day. This function will devolve on specialists, or keepers whose duty will no longer be to preserve documents, but the actual knowledge they contain. Readers, abstracters, systematisers, abbreviators, summarizers and ultimately synthesizers, they will be persons who function is not original research or the development of new knowledge or even teaching systematic knowledge. Rather their function will be to preserve what has been discovered, to gather our intellectual harvests, to classify the elements of knowledge.

The old forms of the book will no longer be maintained; they must give way before the abundance and the variety of matter.”

  • Paul Otlet

[Otlet, Paul. (1903). “The Science of Bibliography and Documentation.” In Rayward, W. Boyd (trans and ed.) (1990). The International Organization and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet. Amsterdam: Elsevier.]

(Many thanks to Boyd for loaning me his personal copy of this very difficult to find work.)

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