Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age

Hardcover | May 13, 2014

byAlex Wright

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The dream of universal knowledge hardly started with the digital age. From the archives of Sumeria to the Library of Alexandria, humanity has long wrestled with information overload and management of intellectual output. Revived during the Renaissance and picking up pace in the Enlightenment,the dream grew and by the late nineteenth century was embraced by a number of visionaries who felt that at long last it was within their grasp. Among them, Paul Otlet stands out. A librarian by training, he worked at expanding the potential of the catalogue card - the world's first information chip. From there followed universal libraries and reading rooms, connecting his native Belgium to the world - by means of vast collections of cardsthat brought together everything that had ever been put to paper. Recognizing that the rapid acceleration of technology was transforming the world's intellectual landscape, Otlet devoted himself to creating a universal bibliography of all published knowledge. Ultimately totaling more than 12 millionindividual entries, it would evolve into the Mundaneum, a vast "city of knowledge" that opened its doors to the public in 1921. By 1934, Otlet had drawn up plans for a network of "electric telescopes" that would allow people everywhere to search through books, newspapers, photographs, andrecordings, all linked together in what he termed a reseau mondial: a worldwide web. It all seemed possible, almost until the moment when the Nazis marched into Brussels and carted it all away. In Cataloging the World, Alex Wright places Otlet in the long continuum of visionaries and pioneers who have dreamed of unifying the world's knowledge, from H.G. Wells and Melvil Dewey to Ted Nelson and Steve Jobs. And while history has passed Otlet by, Wright shows that his legacy persists intoday's networked age, where Internet corporations like Google and Twitter play much the same role that Otlet envisioned for the Mundaneum - as the gathering and distribution channels for the world's intellectual output. In this sense, Cataloging the World is more than just the story of a failedentrepreneur; it is an ongoing story of a powerful idea that has captivated humanity from time immemorial, and that continues to inspire many of us in today's digital age.

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From the Publisher

The dream of universal knowledge hardly started with the digital age. From the archives of Sumeria to the Library of Alexandria, humanity has long wrestled with information overload and management of intellectual output. Revived during the Renaissance and picking up pace in the Enlightenment,the dream grew and by the late nineteenth ce...

Alex Wright is Director of User Experience and Product Research at The New York Times and the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages.
Format:HardcoverDimensions:384 pages, 8.25 × 5.5 × 0.98 inPublished:May 13, 2014Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0199931410

ISBN - 13:9780199931415

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Table of Contents

Introduction1. The Libraries of Babel2. The Dream of the Labyrinth3. Belle Epoque4. The Microphotic Book5. The Index Museum6. Castles in the Air7. Hope, Lost and Found8. Mundaneum9. The Collective Brain10. The Radiated Library11. The Intergalactic Network12. Entering the SteamConclusion