Towards the information age
- Le Mundaneum
“Paul Otlet (1868-1944), founder of the Mundaneum”
The 10th of December 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the
death of Paul Otlet, a remarkable bibliographer and founder of the Mundaneum. In light of the
digital revolution, his heritage is today being revisited from Brussels to
A heritage that transcends technical
progress, the work of Paul Otlet is to
be understood as a part of the background of our information era.
Information architect, knowledge
entrepreneur, inventor of a new form of information
dissemination, theoretician of international relations, creator of a world
network for intellectual cooperation in the service of peace – these are many of the facets that tell the story of a man who has remained too long in the shadows.
At the Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium, we have
preserved the legacy of Paul Otlet which
is being explored by scholars and others throughout the world. The mission of
the Mundaneum is to situate this legacy in a continuing dialogue with the great
themes of our twentieth century society.
A MAN IN A PERIOD OF CHANGE
Paul Otlet is often described as an
entrepreneur of knowledge.
Paul Otlet’s father, Edouard, was an
important figure in the economic landscape of Belgium.
His part in the industrial development of the country lay in the rail
and tramway enterprises he set up in a
number of countries across the world.
should be noted that at this time Belgium ranked
as a major world economic power.
Edouard Otlet’s great
fortune gave him the opportunity of acquiring such property as the “Ile du
Levant”, a major collection of works
of art, even to finance an expedition to the Belgian Congo for King Leopold II.
in this confortable environment, the young Paul
Otlet travelled with his father throughout Europe as an easy form of preparation
for assuming the responsibilities of becoming
the head of a great business enterprise.
Before the age of 20, Paul already had had
a solid experience of the world of publishing, libraries, and museums.
His subsequent legal studies constituted an
important asset in the industrial expansionism of Belgium in this period.
Following his degree, he undertook a legal
apprenticeship that involved among other things work on a massive compilation
of Belgian jurisprudence which fuelled
his passion for analytical studies.
A child of the second Industrial
Revolution, he was a keen observer of the acceleration of scientific progress and
its consequences for the publishing world.
is at a turning point in its history. The mass of available information is formidable. New
instruments are necessary for simplifying
and condensing it or the intellect will never know how to overcome the
difficulties which overwhelm it, nor realise the progress that it glimpses and
to which it aspires,” (Paul Otlet, Traité de Documentation,
Living in the world of the book, the
leitmotive of Paul Otlet’s work became
the accessibility and transmission of information.
If his father’s figure dominated his youth,
other personages influenced him in important ways in the early supportive social and economic environment in
which he was situated and that led him to believe that he could realise his various projects.
Among the most important of these persons were the well known lawyers, Edmond
Picard and Otlet’s friend, colleague and
future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Henri la Fontaine.
ARCHITECT OF KNOWLEDGE
Curiosity, the desire to discover, motivated
Paul Otlet from the time of his youth when he created a museum about the Ile du Levant and classified the books in his high school library.
To collect and to classify were activities to
which he devoted himself and very quickly he realised the problems of access
posed by an ever increasing mass of
Bibliography seemed to him to offer a
On the basis of this fundamental work,
Otlet later developed the idea of the Universal book which expressed his new
vision of information organisation. The term “book” with the enlarged meaning he gave it resonates with the digital devices
we know today.
universal book was intended to integrate a new entity called the World Encyclopedia
into a “network for Documentation.”
The UDC continued to be the indexing language for controlling all of the new in formation structures and processes
he was envisaging. .
“To understand what the Mundaneum is, its architectural
history, it is important to engage in a dialogue with it and to interrogate the
history of librarianship, internationalism and especially Positivism in all of its
spirituality.” Wouter Van Acker, Griffith University (Australia),
in “Opening the Shrine of the Mundaneum: The Positivist Spirit in the
Architecture of Le Corbusier and his Belgian ‘Idolators’ Wouter Van Acker (Brisbane, Australie)
FATHER OF A NEW DISCIPLINE: DOCUMENTATION
The new term, the new concept, “documentation”, which was to revolutionise our understanding of information, had already appeared in his work as early as
This idea of Otlet’s was that we should not
limit ourselves to works in print such
as the periodical or book. The nature of the
information that had to be classified or listed determined the medium in which it was expressed. Image, object , spoken word were all included brought
together in this new documentary category.
At the same time for purposes of information
diffusion, he introduced the notion of the Universal Network of Documentation,
a network for assembling, concentrating, and disseminating knowledge.
“Over here, there are no books on the work
table. In their place stands a screen and a telephone next to it. Over there,
at a distance, are all the books, all the information. From there one can have
appear on the screen the
page answering the question posed by telephone, “ (Paul Otlet, Traité de Documentation, 1934, p428)
Mundaneum reminds me that there is
nothing new. It is always a question of rediscovery using other means, using
new technologies, new capacities. The Mundaneum, the Memex, and now the
Internet and the World Wide Web are only
the latest manifestations. I am impatient to know what follows” (Vint Cerf (USA),
co-inventor of the protocol TCP?IP in 1974.
CREATOR OF A NEW FORM OF INFORMATION DISSEMINATION
Seeking access to knowledge for all, Otlet
sought to integrate into his encyclopaedic mission different information
The Atlas Mundaeum, Encyclopedia
Universalis Mundaeum, the Palais Mondial or “Knowedge in 3D” represent various ways of representing and transmitting
THEORICAN OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
While the idea of world governance is accepted today, Otlet lived at a time when
everything had yet to be created in this domain.
Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine’s goal from the end
of the nineteenth century was to organize intellectual cooperation.
In 1910 they created the Union of international
The idea was to
facilitate peace and human progress
through the dissemination of knowledge.
For this purpose they organized international
congresses, published a major journal , Vie Internationale, and a comprehensive
Directory that surveyed the entire
spectrum of international organizations not only in Brussels but that were
active throughout the world.
After Word War I, cooperation was naturally oriented
toward the new international institution
that bore all the hope of the time, The League of Nations, from which the
United Nations would be born.
The International Committee on International
Intellectual Cooperation of the League, with which both Otlet and la Fontaine
were involved, was the forerunner of
“All the things of the universe and all those of man
will be registered from afar as they are created. Thus a moving image of the
world is created – its memory, its true
duplicate. From afar everyone will be able to read any passage, expanded or
limited to the desired subject, that would be projected onto their individual
screens. Thus from their arm chairs they
will be able to view the universe as a whole or in its various aspects” Monde : essai d’universalisme, Paul Otlet, 1935,
A MAN CREATING A GLOBAL NETWORK
The network is a fundamental concept for Otlet.
Collaboration, mutuality, international exchange are key words for his activities whether in
the intellectual domain or in the political domain where peace is the object.
For him, working in a network linked him to a human, a philosophical reality.
Among the numerous personalities who have collaborated
with Paul Otlet are men and women concerned with scholarly progress in their
Le Corbusier, 1887-1965 (SW) , the famous modernist architect, collaborated with Paul
Otlet on an architectural project for
the Cité Mondiale to be situated first in Geneva then Antwerp.
“Otlet's work matters
today not just as a kind of historical curio, but because he envisioned a
radically different kind of network: one driven not by corporate profit and
personal vanity, but by a utopian vision of intellectual progress, social
egalitarianism, and even spiritual liberation.” Alex Wright, 2014
Contributor: Commissaire—Boyd Rayward, biographe de Paul Otlet
Contributor: Commissaire—Stéphanie Manfroid, archiviste au Mundaneum
Contributor: Commissaire—Delphine Jenart, directrice adjointe au Mundaneum