Really Old Bits #1: "The Mundaneum"

From: Derek Robinson (
Date: Fri Apr 20 2001 - 02:45:53 PDT


"World of Learning and a Virtual Library"
by Barry James, International Herald Tribune

MONS, Belgium - Outside specialist circles, few have heard of Paul Otlet,
a visionary Belgian who sought to put all human knowledge on 3-by-5-inch
library cards in a temple of learning that he called the Mundaneum. Yet,
as a new museum in Mons shows, Otlet's century-old concept
preconfigured the Internet.

Rescued from neglect, the Mundaneum has found a permanent home here in a
converted 1930s department store and annexes for research and storage.
Boxes crammed with the tons of documents and publications collected by
Otlet and his followers fill about 6 kilometers of shelf space, awaiting
classification. Vast iconographic resources, including hundreds of
thousands of posters, postcards and glass photographs, remain largely

''It will take us more than 100 years just to sort out and scan the
newspapers into computers,'' said Daniel Lefebvre, an archivist.

Otlet appears to have been the first to realize that information exists
independently of the medium that contains it and that any artifact can be
considered a primary source. Today, the stretching of the concept of a
document to embrace a wide range of sources and experiences has become a
guiding principle of Internet communication.

Otlet also realized the importance of associating different strands of
information to connect what is known to what is potentially known. On the
Internet, this is known as hyperlinking, or the ability to move from one
idea to another by clicking on a link in a document or picture.

In the 1930s, Otlet predicted that ''electric telescopes'' would enable
users to consult books stored in distant libraries. He envisaged that
people would read texts on screens. He thought that machines would one day
be used to retrieve data reduced to their analytical elements - was he
thinking of digitalization? Otlet also had a notion of multimedia that
even now is ahead of its time. He thought that touch, taste and smell as
well as sounds were valid information sources.

He helped mold modern library science. He introduced the standard
microfiche and in 1934 wrote ''A Treatise on Documentation'' that remained
the standard reference work until the advent of electronic information
storage and retrieval.

Various moves over the years and the destruction of parts of the
collection have robbed Otlet's filing system, which once contained more
than 12 million cards, of any unity it may once have had. He pleaded for
the Mundaneum to be kept intact, but 70 tons of material were destroyed in
1970, followed by a further 23 tons in 1980 and six containers-full in

The designers of the museum faced the challenge of how to convert the
hundreds of battered, dusty filing cabinets packed with cards full of
arcane and disjointed knowledge into an exhibition that would attract the
nonspecialist public. They have created a phantasmagoric library, with a
revolving, four-meter-high globe, a telescope, printing press, Linotype
and time-worn wooden desks. At one point, cards spill out of their cabinet
in an artful display suggesting the chaotic state of the collection.

Just inside the door is a re-creation of Otlet's office, a jumble of
books, papers, a battered typewriter, an old top hat. Otlet did not
believe in keeping a tidy desk - pictures show his bearded visage peeping
over disorderly ramparts of paper.

This juxtaposition of order and chaos forms a backdrop for an examination
of Otlet's ideas, times and circle of acquaintances. Ambitious as it was,
the Mundaneum was not intended to be an end in itself. Otlet wanted it to
be the intellectual heart of a great city dedicated to peace and universal
brotherhood, a project on which he worked for a time with the architect Le

The story began in 1895, when Otlet and Henri La Fontaine - a fellow
lawyer, socialist and pacifist - founded the International Bureau of
Bibliography. They believed that knowledge equaled power and that the
classification of knowledge could be a powerful tool for creating progress
and peace. The utopian scope of the bureau, therefore, was to compile a
universal index of all knowledge. The founders created the Universal
Classification System on the basis of the decimal method invented by
Melvil Dewey in the United States and defined the 3-by-5-inch
(12.5-by-7.5-centimeter) punched catalogue cards that are still used in

La Fontaine was an ardent feminist and peace campaigner, promoting the
principle of international arbitrage that led to the creation of a world
court in The Hague, work for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in
1913. Otlet was equally committed to peace, all the more so after his son
was killed in World War I.

The universal exposition in Belgium in 1910 caused Otlet to ask why such
ephemeral examples of international goodwill should not become a permanent
fixture, and he began badgering the Belgian government to provide a home
for his huge card index and collections.

A meeting with the Norwegian sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen led Otlet
to form an even grander ambition. Andersen worked with a team of about 30
architects to elaborate his grandiose plan for a city of the intellect,
distinguished by a 320-meter ''tower of progress.'' Otlet proposed that
the Mundaneum should become the intellectual hub of such a city, which
would be the headquarters of a future society of nations. Several sites
were considered, including Tervueren, just east of Brussels, the Hague and
Lakewood, New Jersey.

The war made the Belgian government receptive to Otlet's proposals. In
1919, it turned over to him a wing of the Palais du Cinquentenaire in
Brussels. However, the victorious powers decided to build the society or
League of Nations not in Tervueren as Otlet hoped, but in Geneva.

Later Le Corbusier, after failing in his bid to design the Palace of
Nations in Geneva, drew up plans for the great city project. Otlet
remained obsessed by the idea until his death in 1944.

Meanwhile, the Belgian government had long lost patience with the
Mundaneum. In 1924 it required Otlet to give up much of his space to make
way for a temporary exhibition by the rubber industry.

In 1934, the Mundaneum was closed, although the collection remained in
place until German troops threw it out to make way for an exhibition of
Nazi art. The Mundaneum moved to cramped quarters at the Parc Leopold in
Brussels and subsequently to a succession of temporary storage places,
ending up in a parking garage from which Belgium's Francophone community
government rescued it.

Over the years, volunteers continued to add to the collection, although
without a coherent intellectual vision. Now the director of the Mundaneum,
Jean-Francois Fueg, hopes to re-create the Mundaneum as a research center
by capitalizing and building on those aspects of the collection that
reflect the interests of its founders: pacifism, feminism, socialism and

The Mundaneum, which Le Corbusier described as a panorama of ''the whole
of human history from its origins,'' was undoubtedly the first attempt to
create a virtual library.

But only now does technology hold out the promise of turning that vision
into reality.


Other references:

Photo gallery of what's left of the Mundaneum.

Michael Buckland's History of Information Science page.

A brief biography of Paul Otlet.

Antecedents and historical context of Vannevar Bush's Memex.

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