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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"This will be the radiated library and the televised book."
-- Paul Otlet, quoted in an excerpt from the documentary film, "The Man Who Wanted to Classify the World." 

From today's New York Times: The Mundaneum Museum Honors the First Concept of the World Wide Web,
The Web Time Forgot

"In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or 'electric telescopes,' as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a 'reseau,' which might be translated as 'network' [~] or arguably, 'web.'"

Back in the mid-1980s I read Howard Rheingold's Tools for Thought, and learned about Vannevar Bush's "memex" ideas for automating cross-reference links, and how Bush's "How We May Think" (1945) influenced a young radar operator, Doug Engelbart (who later gave us the mouse and the first great demo of the future of work on screen), and Ted Nelson (who gave us the word "hypertext"). I got excited about hypertext programs with names like "Guide," "Hypercard," "HyperTIES," "ZOG" and "BlackMagic" a few years before an English programmer in Switzerland opened a new research universe with his practical Internet version of linkage,  HTML, HTTP and the Web.

Otlet, though, was off the radar. It's amazing to think that mostly monoglot Americans may have missed a page in the history of information technology -- one not written in English, or on this continent. As Times reporter Alex Wright puts it, complete with pronunciation guide,  

"Historians typically trace the origins of the World Wide Web through a lineage of Anglo-American inventors like Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. But more than half a century before Tim Berners-Lee released the first Web browser in 1991, Otlet (pronounced ot-LAY) described a networked world where "anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation."

Like Bush, Otlet described analog devices linking chunks of information, but it sounds like "networking" was even more central to Otlet's thought than Bush's automated personal memory bank, the memex. I'm going to read more about this gentleman, starting with this essay, which also talks about issues in the work of biography itself, by W. Boyd Rayward, whose 197-page  book about Otlet is also online at

Hmm. I wonder if Rheingold or Nelson or Berners-Lee has written about Otlet... or if I would have heard about him already if I'd gone after that M.L.S. degree instead of "settling" for an M.A.L.S. and a Ph.D.?  Well, at least I've heard of him in time to work him into my syllabus for the Media History course I'll be teaching in the fall... and I can use this blog page to point out to students that there's never one "textbook" with all the answers.

12:49:06 PM    comment []

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