The web conceived in 1934?
June 17, 2008 7:15 AM   Subscribe

Le réseau - Starting in the late 19th century, Belgian Paul Otlet envisioned the basics of a human powered Wikipedia and Google. He created a 12 million item database on index cards and accepted queries via mail or telegraph. The article describes his work and the Mundaneum museum in his honor. Be sure to watch the video. There is a full documentary on Otlet as well.
posted by Argyle (8 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have anything more intelligent to say than "wow, cool!". But wow! cool!
posted by Nelson at 7:45 AM on June 17, 2008

This is really cool! I think Otlet's conception of le réseau compares favorably to Vannevar Bush's memex in terms of prognostication. Don't take my word for it, though, here's Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay As We May Think where he lays out his vision.
posted by Kattullus at 7:57 AM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Alex Wright presented a Google TechTalk entitled "The Web That Wasn't" that focuses on Otlet, among others.
posted by metabrilliant at 8:24 AM on June 17, 2008

Also, Wright has posted additional photos of the Mundaneum on his blog.
posted by metabrilliant at 8:33 AM on June 17, 2008

I had forgotten about this bit (and most of Vannevar's article) but in light of Otlet's work it feels richly ironic:
Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call. Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.
I wonder though, sometimes, whether the internet has made the wheat easier to sift from the chaff or whether it just makes the chaff rush at our attention from more directions. One of the main reasons I hang about this place is the filtering.
posted by Kattullus at 9:07 AM on June 17, 2008

UC Berkeley iSchool professor Michael Buckland maintains some Otlet links here.

Buckland is a great resource for those interested in the history of information science. For example, in this podcast he mentions Otlet and Emmanuel Goldberg, who patented an electronic search engine in 1927, and from whom Vannevar Bush may have lifted his ideas.
posted by needled at 10:50 AM on June 17, 2008

Much of the renewed interest in Otlet can be traced back to Professor Boyd Rayward of the University of Illinois's Graduate School of Library and Information Science. who maintains a page full of interesting Otlet material.

I was exposed to Paul Otlet when Boyd screened "The Man Who Tried to Classify The World" near the end of my studies at UIUC, and I was lucky enough to speak with him about his research on Otlet and borrow one of the few remaining copies of Boyd's English translations of Otlet's essays which is an amazing read. It's about impossible to find the book days but luckily is now online -- International organisation and dissemination of knowledge.
posted by adam at 9:46 PM on June 17, 2008

Hah! The internet IS a system of tubes!
"The Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes," Stevens said during a June 28 committee session.

"And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled. And if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

At another point in his 11-minute discourse, he said he'd seen these delays firsthand: "I just the other day got - an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially."
Side note....UIUC-GSLIS is an amazing program. They do a lot of good work. I'm just a fan, not one of their own.
posted by beelzbubba at 6:21 AM on June 22, 2008

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