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

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

Alex Wright. Oxford Univ, $27.95 (384) ISBN 978-0-19-993141-5

In this enlightening profile, Wright (Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages) revives and contextualizes the now largely forgotten work of “visionary information theorist” Paul Otlet. He begins at the end of Otlet’s life in December of 1940 as his life’s work—a “Universal Bibliography,” organized with his own “Universal Decimal Classification” designed to reference and collate all human knowledge—was being dismantled by the Nazi occupiers of Brussels. Otlet had worked throughout his life to create these and precursor entities with the unshakable belief that ready access to all human knowledge would be crucial to world peace under an international government. Otlet described his vision for this network as a series of “workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen... connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources.” Despite his determination and wide range of contacts, Otlet’s vision never came to fruition and, as Wright chronicles in his final two chapters, had little influence on those who did finally succeed in creating an international information network. Still, Wright is certain that “Otlet’s vision for an international knowledge network... points toward a more purposeful vision of what the global network could yet become,” and his biography could help set that in motion. (June)