The Search Engine of 1896
September 22, 2021 5:22 PM   Subscribe

A Very Old Search Engine "The end of the 19th century was awash with the written word..."

Paul Otlet had a passion for information.... This was their plan: the grandly named Universal Bibliographic Repertory.
posted by kathrynm (12 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fixed-format category strings mean that you need to know what sort of category the designer thinks is of primary importance, then secondary importance, and so forth. Conceptual categorisation is really crying out for Gödel numbering so that you can have an arbitrarily high number of categories arranged in any order and recover the information by simple factorisation.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:56 PM on September 22, 2021 [4 favorites]


I like how the illustration on that page says "bibliothèque internationale (livres)" as the bottom layer in the hierarchy, and the Repertoire Bibliographique Universel is housed in what looks like a standard card catalog, but nowhere does the article mention libraries or librarians. Cool, cool.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:27 PM on September 22, 2021 [1 favorite]


One hundred hence behold InfoTrac.
posted by clavdivs at 8:25 PM on September 22, 2021


No slight against libraries intended - Otlet's unrealised plan (that image at the bottom of the article) was to collect every single book, image, document, everything he could really, into a universal library, but in reality he never even got close. The repertory was supposed to be a vanguard of that larger work, but it never recovered from the invasion of Belgium in WWII.
posted by Paragon at 8:30 PM on September 22, 2021 [1 favorite]


Conceptual categorisation is really crying out for Gödel numbering

Coincidentally, Gödel was also born in 1896.
posted by star gentle uterus at 10:22 PM on September 22, 2021 [2 favorites]


I sit firmly in GenX. In the early-mid '10s I used to exchange economics and stats papers with a colleage that was firmly a boomer. We read and discussed a ton of books and talked a lot about learning - how and what people look for information, specifically what they consider primary sources has changed. The boomer, let's call him 'B', didn't own a smartphone at the time, and - as stated, we were rooted in papers and programming.

So we're walking down the hall and discussing card catalogs - as one does for fun. Another colleague, the millennial, 'M', is walking near us. B and I are discussing the impact the internet has had on information retention and about how the necessity to have a deep level of understanding has been replaced by learning how to find information faster. So, I ask B how he would go about relearning all the economic theory and stats knowledge he had about the US for that of a significantly different country. We discuss the transitive properties of some of it, but also discuss going to a library, using a combination of Lexus Nexus AND a card catalog to find additional primary sources and so forth. Its a solid plan.

In the hall, I turn aroud, appologise for interrupting M, and ask him how he would do the same thing. He pulls his phone from his pocket and says, 'Siri... '

The point is, the old style relied heavily on in depth memorization and specialization and having a working knowledge that was akin to a thesaurus. Search, and the availability of all resources at our fingertips mean that our knowledge has moved from deep facts and deep domain to search and rapid short term assimilation of knowledge. That isn't to say that kids today don't know anything deep, more that depth is achieved with a greater level of specificity and not through a general overload.

As a genX. I've played in both camps - having learned across the transition.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:01 AM on September 23, 2021 [5 favorites]


Paul Otlet's Wikipedia page has some other interesting details about him. Including the fact that his Universal Decimal classification system was built to be an extension of Dewey Decimal Classification - Melvil Dewey agreed that they could play about with his system as long as they didn't translate the thing into English. It is really worth considering the cumulative amount of work that must have gone into creating 15 million entries - by hand, and of considering where each one should go in the classification. Apparently the mail in searches would typically return about 50 results - and Otlet's service was fielding up to 1,200 of these requests per year. Again: imagine the process of doing that work by hand.
posted by rongorongo at 3:16 AM on September 23, 2021 [2 favorites]


I like how the illustration on that page says "bibliothèque internationale (livres)" as the bottom layer in the hierarchy, and the Repertoire Bibliographique Universel is housed in what looks like a standard card catalog, but nowhere does the article mention libraries or librarians. Cool, cool.

Bibliothèque is French for library.
posted by eviemath at 6:18 AM on September 23, 2021 [2 favorites]


In the early days of growing Internet access, when Mosaic had yet to launch, and tools like Archie, Veronica, and Gopher were still in widespread use, one of my friends joked that I should hire out as a "professional Internet searcher", because I had a knack for being able to find information on nearly anything. Tweaking my queries on the fly, I was probably doing a rough approximation of the fuzzy logic that modern search engines operate on. Sitting there in high school, friends would challenge me to find something obscure, and before you knew it, I'd have it. Possibly related: I freaking love card catalogs.
posted by xedrik at 7:34 AM on September 23, 2021


Huh. I also remember "professional Internet searcher" being a thing, only for me it was one of my middle school teachers claiming that his friend was one and that she made a ton of money from having an extensively curated collection of bookmarks and knowlege of how to access a lot of the domain-specific databases that were just coming online with telnet-based interfaces.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:46 AM on September 23, 2021


If you like this, you should read The Catalog of Shipwrecked Books. From the author's website:
THE CATALOGUE OF SHIPWRECKED BOOKS tells the scarcely believable––and wholly true––story of Christopher Columbus' bastard son Hernando, who sought to equal and surpass his father's achievements by creating a universal library that would harness the vast powers of the new printing presses and bring every book in the world together in his library in Seville.
It wasn't just books, either—he collected ephemera, like handbills and pamphlets and the like. There are many books that are known only by the catalogs he compiled. It's a fascinating read, and you also learn quite a bit about Christopher Columbus, and what happens after 1492. It's such a good book.
posted by Orlop at 1:48 PM on September 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


Otlet's unrealised plan (that image at the bottom of the article) was to collect every single book, image, document, everything he could really, into a universal library, but in reality he never even got close.

Columbus's son wanted much the same—and he hoped that what he built would live forever. He tried to set it up so that it could, but like many great visions, it didn't outlive him.

He invented bookshelves, though. That's an interesting bit. There are a zillion interesting bits. The book is so good.
posted by Orlop at 1:51 PM on September 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


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