The origins of the Internet in Europe - Le Mundaneum
Collecting, indexing & sharing knowledge
Europe, 1895: two men shared a dream of « indexing and classifying the world’s
information ». Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine’s work foreshadowed the network
of knowledge that a century later became the Internet with its search engines!
Otlet and La
Fontaine aimed to preserve peace by assembling knowledge and making it
accessible to the entire world. They built an international documentation
center called Mundaneum. They invented the modern library Universal Decimal
Classification system. La Fontaine won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913.
By 1935, their
Mundaneum grew to a staggering 16 million cards covering subjects ranging from
the history of hunting dogs to finance!
World War II
and the death of both founders slowed down the project. Although many Mundaneum
archives were stored away, some even in the Brussels subway, volunteers kept
the dream alive. The French community government of Belgium brought most of the
archives to a beautiful Art Deco building in the heart of Mons near Brussels.
was a Belgian author, entrepreneur, visionary, lawyer and peace activist. He is
considered as one of the fathers of information science, a field he called
“Documentation“. The World Science Festival 2012 in New York recognized him as
”the father of the idea of Internet".
Paul Otlet wrote numerous essays on how to collect and organize the world's knowledge, culminating in two books, the “Traité de Documentation” (1934) and “Monde: Essai d'universalisme” (1935).
Fontaine was a Belgian lawyer. He promoted a vision of peace stemming from the
global diffusion of information.
“Historians typically trace the origins
of the World Wide Web” through a lineage of Anglo-American inventors like
Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. But more than half a century
before Tim Berners-Lee released the first Web browser in 1991, Otlet described a networked world where “anyone in his armchair
would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.” Alex Wright (New-York Times, 2008)
The first biographer of Paul Otlet was an Australian student whose name was Boyd Rayward (University of Illinois). He re-discovered Otlet and the Mundaneum in Brussels in the 1960's.
The New York Times journalist Alex Wright wrote about the Mundaneum “The Web time forgot” in June 2008.
with two basic questions: What works have been written by an author? / What has
been written on a subject? No restrictions were placed on the time, location,
or language of the document.
Paul Otlet comes
to the conclusion that knowledge is spread around the world. He starts to
collect sources of information...
method aiming at indexing and organizing knowledge is created: The Universal
The UDC is a numbering
system based on the Decimal Classification of American librarian Melvil Dewey. After
several additional developments, libraries around the world adopt it.
“By means of the collaboration of
huge numbers of specialists throughout the world, the classification has
continued to reflect the technological and scientific advances in all fields of
knowledge. It is still being maintained, and versions in several languages
continue to be published.”
(“Mundaneum: Archives of knowledge”, translated and adapted by W.Boyd Rayward (University of Illinois)
“The Semantic Web is rather
Michael Buckland, professeur at the School of Information at the
University of California, Berkeley
« Books no
longer burden the desktop. A screen, with a telephone, replaces them. Far away,
an immense building contains every book and every piece of information. Questions are asked by telephone, and the page providing the answer is made to
appear on the screen to be read. »
Paul Otlet, "Traité de documentation", 1934
his life, Paul Otlet kept thinking about the most efficient way to pass on
knowledge: he worked on thousands of plans and ideas with some engineers of his
time. Take a look
at these “prototypes” and you will understand why he was so far ahead of his
In 1913, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine welcomed the famous american pacifist steel investor Andrew Carnegie for a visit of a museum of a brand new kind : the “Palais Mondial-Mundaneum” in Brussels...
This way, a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of its
memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and
limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. This way,
everyone will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its
parts, from their armchair.”
Paul Otlet, “Monde”, 1935
Magazine’s founding editor Kevin Kelly wrote about Paul Otlet:
Otlet outlined these grand visions of easily accessible knowledge and interconnected data many decades before Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson first articulated them. And more importantly, he actually built an analog hypertext system.
“Was the internet invented in 1934? The scientist whose 'televised book' foretold the world wide web seven decades ago”
The Mondothèque: the laptop's ancestor!
“Paul Otlet designed the Mondothèque as a work station to be used at home to engage people in the production and dissemination of knowledge. It contained reference works, catalogues, multimedia substitutes for traditional books such as microfilms, TV, radio, and finally a new form of encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaneum.”
Charles Vandenheuvel (Places & Spaces/Mapping science)
knowledge network aimed at universal understanding:
Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, international harmony could be built on the
foundations of intellectual cooperation. After the devastation of World War I
from 1914-to 1918, both men believed working for intellectual cooperation would
open up a global cultural dialogue that would eventually lead to a lasting
The idea of a World City took shape in the mind of Paul Otlet from 1910. The World City is an international centre entirely devoted to knowledge!
collaborated with a series of architects including Le Corbusier to build his
pacifist project in bricks. Designs were envisioned for many cities, including
Geneva, Brussels, and Antwerp... but none became a reality.
In this era
of digital switchovers and Web 2.0, the awareness of new challenges related not
only to organizing and sharing knowledge but also to citizenship is starting to
emerge. The essence of the Mundaneum is such as it lends depth and perspective
to this digital revolution, which we are observing from a privileged
Contributor: Role—Cornille, Raphaèle, archivist in charge of Iconography department (Mundaneum)
Contributor: Role—Jenart, Delphine, assistant manager in charge of Communication (Mundaneum)