Today’s New York Times Science section reports on Paul Otlet and the conceptual groundwork he laid for a universal system to link and retrieve information globally:
“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 “réseau,” which might be translated as “network” — or arguably, “web.”
Working with index cards, well before the invention of computers, he quickly ran up against a huge problem: the volume of paper produced by his system was greater than any staff of human beings could handle.
Otlet’s contribution wasn’t that he invented a workable solution. He didn’t. But, he had the vision to imagine a system for linking and describing knowledge (and encouraging users to communicate with each other, too).
In a way, he predicted the invention of the database, the search engine, social networking and the semantic web (arranging content on the Web so subject relationships are indicated).
It seems amazing that he foresaw so much…and he should be creditied for his vision — But certainly late 19th and early 20th century librarians were aware of the limitations that they were running up against trying to organize an ever-growing body of information in an increasingly-globalized world.
The decades prior to the invention of the computer must have been a strange time to work in what later came to be called the field of “information.” The technology available at the time to collect, describe and distribute information was falling further behind the capacity to produce information.
Ppeople trying to organize information back then (who couldn’t have forseen the invention of the database and of networked computing) could only wonder if the future would mean continuing to fall behind, as more and more information was printed and as the audience for information became more dispersed all around the world.