More on Paul Otlet's "Mundaneum"

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Paul Otlet's work first caught my attention last May due to a 2003 Boxes and Arrows article. Otlet's work was a sort of conceptual precursor to the World Wide Web, and was in effect an extremely well-organized and mechanized library -- but I'd never heard of him, despite having been through a pretty thorough Library Science Bachelor's program. Now the New York Times has a detailed article, complete with new graphics and a video, on Otlet's efforts. Here's a taste:

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or "electric telescopes," as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a "réseau," which might be translated as "network" — or arguably, "web." ...

Otlet's vision hinged on the idea of a networked machine that joined documents using symbolic links. While that notion may seem obvious today, in 1934 it marked a conceptual breakthrough. ...

Today, Otlet and his work have been largely forgotten, even in his native Belgium. Although Otlet enjoyed considerable fame during his lifetime, his legacy fell victim to a series of historical misfortunes — not least of which involved the Nazis marching into Belgium and destroying much of his life's work.

Read the rest -- and be sure to check out the infographics and documentary video in the left column.

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June 27, 2008 - 10:04am
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