Paul Otlet

Paul Otlet


August 23, 1868

Died December 10 1944 (aged 76)
Citizenship Belgium
Field Information science

Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet (pronounced "ot-LAY") (August 23, 1868 - December 10, 1944) was an Belgian author, entrepreneur, lawyer and peace activist; he is one of several people who have been considered the father of information science, a field he called "documentation." Otlet created the Universal Decimal Classification, one of the most prominent examples of faceted classification. Otlet was responsible for the widespread adoption in Europe of the standard American 3x5 inch index card used until recently in most library catalogs around the world (by now displaced by the advent of online public access catalogs (OPAC). Otlet wrote numerous essays on how to collect and organize the world's knowledge, culminating in two books, the Traité de documentation.(1934) and Monde: Essai d'universalisme. (1935)

In 1907, following a large international conference, Henri La Fontaine and Otlet created the Central Office of International Associations, which was renamed to the Union of International Associations in 1910, and which is still located in Brussels. They also created an international center called at first Palais Mondial (World Palace), later, the Mundaneum to house the collections and activities of their various organizations and institutes.


Otlet was also an idealist and peace activist, pushing internationalist political ideas that were embodied in the League of Nations and its International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (forerunner of UNESCO), working alongside his colleague Henri La Fontaine, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913, to achieve their ideas of a new world polity that they saw arising from the global diffusion of information and the creation of new kinds of international organizations.

Early life and career

Front page of the book "International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge" (selected essays by Paul Otlet), edited by W. Boyd Rayward

Otlet was born in Brussels, Belgium on August 23, 1868, the oldest child of Édouard Otlet (Brussels June 13, 1842-Blaquefort, France, October 20, 1907) and Maria (née Van Mons). His father, Édouard, was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune selling trams around the world. His mother died in 1871 at the age of 24, when Otlet was three. Through his mother, he was related to the Van Mons family, a prosperous family, and to the Verhaeren family, of which Emile Verhaeren was one of the most important Belgian poets.

His father kept him out of school, hiring tutors instead, until he was 11, believing that classrooms were a stifling environment. Otlet, as a child, had few friends, and played regularly only with his younger brother Maurice. He soon developed a love of reading books.

At the age of six, a temporary decline in his father's wealth caused the family to move to Paris. At the age of 11, Paul went to school for the first time, a Jesuit school in Paris, where he stayed for the next three years. The family then returned to Brussels, and Paul studied at the prestigious Collège Saint-Michel in Brussels for high school. In 1894, his father became a senator in the Belgian Senate for the Catholic Party (until 1900). His father remarried to Valerie Linden, daughter of famed botanist Jean Jules Linden; the two eventually had five additional children. The family travelled often during this time, going on holidays and business trips to Italy, France and Russia.

Otlet was educated at the Catholic University of Leuven and at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he earned a law degree on July 15, 1890. He married his step-cousin, Fernande Gloner, soon afterward, on December 9, 1890. He then clerked with famed lawyer Edmond Picard, a friend of his father.

Otlet soon became dissatisfied with his legal career, and began to take an interest in bibliography. His first published work on the subject was the essay "Something about bibliography," written in 1892. In it he expressed the belief that books were an inadequate way to store information, because the arrangement of facts contained within them was an arbitrary decision on the part of the author's, making individual facts difficult to locate. A better storage system, Otlet wrote in his essay, would be cards containing individual "chunks" of information, that would allow "all the manipulations of classification and continuous interfiling." In addition would be needed "a very detailed synoptic outline of knowledge" that could allow classification of all of these chunks of data.

In 1891, Otlet met Henri La Fontaine, a fellow lawyer with shared interests in bibliography and international relations, and the two became good friends. They were commissioned in 1892 by Belgium's Societé des Sciences sociales et politiques (Society of social and political sciences) to create bibliographies for various of the social sciences; they spent three years doing this. In 1895, they discovered the Dewey Decimal Classification, a library classification system that had been invented in 1876. They decided to try to expand this system to cover the classification of facts that Otlet had previously imagined. They wrote to the system's creator, Melvil Dewey, asking for permission to modify his system in this way; he agreed, so long as their system was not translated into English. They began work on this expansion soon afterwards.

During this time, Otlet and his wife then had two sons, Marcel and Jean, in quick succession.

Otlet founded the Institut International de Bibliographie (IIB) in 1895, later renamed as (in English) the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID).

The Universal Bibliographic Repertory

In 1895, Otlet and La Fontaine also began the creation of a collection of index cards, meant to catalog facts, which they had begun working on in 1895, that came to be known as the "Repertoire Bibliographique Universel" (RBU), or the "Universal Bibliographic Repertory." By the end of 1895 it had grown to 400,000 entries; later it would reach a maximum of over 15 million.

In 1896, Otlet set up a fee-based service to answer questions by mail, by sending the requesters copies of the relevant index cards for each query; scholar Alex Wright has referred to the service as an "analog search engine".[1] By 1912, this service responded to over 1500 queries a year. Users of this service were even warned if their query was likely to produce more than 50 results per search.

Otlet envisioned a copy of the RBU in each major city around the world, with Brussels holding the master copy. At various times between 1900 and 1914, attempts were made to send full copies of the RBU to cities such as Paris, Washington, D.C. and Rio de Janeiro; however, difficulties in copying and transportation meant that no city received more than a few hundred thousand cards.

The Universal Decimal Classification

In 1904, Otlet and La Fontaine began to publish their classification scheme, which they termed the Universal Decimal Classification. They completed this initial publication in 1907. The system defines not only detailed subject classifications, but also an algebraic notation for referring to the intersection of several subjects; for example, the notation "31:[622+669](485)" refers to the statistics of mining and metallurgy in Sweden. The UDC is an example of a faceted classification system, and is still used by some libraries.

A faceted classification system allows the assignment of multiple classifications to an object, enabling the classifications to be ordered in multiple ways, rather than in a single, pre-determined, taxonomic order. The Colon classification developed by S. R. Ranganathan is the most prominent example of faceted classification and Otlet's UDC is also a faceted classification system.

Personal troubles and World War I

In 1906, with his father Édouard near death and his businesses falling apart, Paul and his brother and five step-siblings formed a company, Otlet Frères ("Brothers Otlet") to try to manage these businesses, which included mines and railways. Paul, though he was consumed with his bibliographic work, became president of the company. In 1907, Édouard died, and the family struggled to maintain all parts of the business. In April 1908, Paul Otlet and his wife began divorce proceedings. Otlet remarried in 1912, to Cato Van Nederhesselt.

In 1913, La Fontaine won the Nobel Peace Prize, and invested his winnings into Otlet and La Fontaine's bibliographic ventures, which were suffering from lack of funding. Otlet journeyed to the United States in early 1914 to try to get additional funding from the U.S. Government, but his efforts soon came to a halt due to the outbreak of World War I. Otlet returned to Belgium, but quickly fled after it became occupied by the Germans; he spent the majority of the war in Paris and various cities in Switzerland. Both his sons fought in the Belgian army, and one of them, Jean, died during the war in the Battle of the Yser.

Otlet spent much of his time during the war trying to bring about peace, and the creation of multinational institutions that he felt could avert future wars. In 1914, he published a book, La Fin de la Guerre (The End of War) that defined a "World Charter of Human Rights" as the basis for an international federation.

The Mundaneum

In 1910, Otlet and La Fontaine first envisioned a "city of knowledge," which Otlet originally named the "Palais Mondial" ("World Palace"), that would serve as a central repository for the world's information. In 1919, soon after the end of World War I, they convinced the government of Belgium to give them the space and funding for this project, arguing that it would help Belgium bolster its bid to house the League of Nations headquarters. They were given space in the left wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire, a government building in Brussels. They then hired staff to help add to their Universal Bibliographic Repertory. The Palais Mondial was briefly shuttered in 1922, due to lack of support from the government of Prime Minister Georges Theunis, but was reopened after lobbying from Otlet and La Fontaine. Otlet renamed the Palais Mondial to the Mundaneum in 1924. The RBU steadily grew to 13 million index cards in 1927; by its final year, 1934, it had reached over 15 million.[2]. Index cards were stored in custom-designed cabinets, and indexed according to the Universal Decimal Classification. The collection also grew to include files (including letters, reports, newspaper articles, etc.) and images, contained in separate rooms; the index cards were meant to catalog all of these as well. The Mundaneum eventually contained 100,000 files and millions of images.

In 1934, the Belgian government again cut off funding for the project, and the offices were closed. (Otlet protested by keeping vigil outside the locked offices, but to no avail.) The collection remained untouched within those offices, however, until 1939, when Germany invaded Belgium. Requisitioning the Mundaneum's quarters to hold a collection of Third Reich art and destroying substantial amounts of its collections in the process, the Germans forced Otlet and his colleagues to find a new home for the Mundaneum. In a large but decrepit building in Leopold Park they reconstituted the Mundaneum as best as they could, and there it remained until it was forced to move again in 1972, well after Otlet's death.

Exploring new media

Otlet integrated new media, as they were invented, into his vision of the networked knowledge-base of the future. In the early 1900s, Otlet worked with engineer Robert Goldschmidt on storing bibliographic data on microfilm (then known as "micro-photography"). These experiments continued into the 1920s, and by the late 1920s he attempted along with colleagues to create an encyclopedia printed entirely on microfilm, known as the Encyclopaedia Microphotica Mundaneum, which was housed in the Mundaneum. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote about radio and television as other forms of conveying information, writing in the 1934 Traité de documentation that "one after another, marvelous inventions have immensely extended the possibilities of documentation." In the same book, he predicted that media that would convey feel, taste and smell would also eventually be invented, and that an ideal information-conveyance system should be able to handle all of what he called "sense-perception documents."

Political views and involvement

Otlet was a firm believer in international cooperation to promote both the spread of knowledge and peace between nations. The Union of International Associations, which he had founded in 1907 with Henri La Fontaine, later led to the development of both the League of Nations and the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, which was later merged into UNESCO.

In 1933, Otlet proposed building in Belgium near Antwerp a "gigantic neutral World City" to employ a massive amount of workers, in order to alleviate the unemployment generated by the Great Depression.[3]

Otlet's Death

Otlet died in 1944, soon before the end of World War II, having seen his major project, the Mundaneum, shuttered, and having lost all his funding sources.

According to Otlet scholar W. Boyd Rayward, "the First World War marked the end of the intellectual as well as sociopolitical era in which Otlet had functioned hitherto with remarkable success," after which Otlet began to lose the support of both the Belgian government and the academic community, and his ideas began to seem "grandiose, unfocused and passe."

In the wake of World War II, the contributions of Otlet to the field of information science were lost sight of in the rising popularity of the ideas of American information scientists such as Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson and by such theorists of information organization as Seymour Lubetzky.


Beginning in the 1980s, and especially after the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, new interest arose in Otlet's speculations and theories about the organization of knowledge, the use of information technologies, and globalization. His 1934 masterpiece, the Traité de documentation, was reprinted in 1989 by the Centre de Lecture publique de la Communauté française in Belgium. (Neither the Traité nor its companion work, "Monde" (World) has been translated into English so far.) In 1990 Professor W. Boyd Rayward published an English translation of some of Otlet's writings.[4] He also published a biography of Otlet (1975) that was translated into Russian (1976) and Spanish (1996, 1999, and 2005).

In 1985, Belgian academic André Canonne raised the possibility of recreating the Mundaneum as an archive and museum devoted to Otlet and others associated with them; his idea initially was to house it in the Belgian city of Liège. Cannone, with substantial help from others, eventually managed to open the new Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium in 1998. This museum is still in operation, and contains the personal papers of Otlet and La Fontaine and the archives of the various organizations they created along with other collections important to the modern history of Belgium.

Otlet's visions and insights

Otlet's writings have sometimes been called prescient of the current World Wide Web. His vision of a great network of knowledge was centered on documents and included the notions of hyperlinks, search engines, remote access, multimedia, database, and social networks—although these notions were described by different names. These visions, which Otlet tried to actualize through available technologies at his time such as paper and microform, have now been realized due to computer technologies.

While his vision and insights were remarkable, his commitment and conviction to realize peace through knowledge is even more impressive. The whole purpose of building a universal database was to establish global peace. His noble vision of the of use of knowledge for the peace of humanity is an admirable and pertinent today.


  1. Alex Wright, International Herald Tribune, online The web that time forgot, The New York Times, June 17, 2008. Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  2. W. Boyd Rayward, "Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext.", published in Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45(4) (May 1994):235-250. Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  3. Work for All the World, TIME Magazine, January 23, 1933. Retrieved September 19, 2008.
  4. Paul Otlet, in Ideals International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge link to PDF of original manuscript. Univ. of Illinois at Urbana Champlain Retrieved September 19, 2008.


Books and articles

  • Day, R. 1997. "Paul Otlet's Book and the Writing of Social Space." JOURNAL- AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE 48 (4): 310-317.
  • Day, Ronald E. The Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, and Power. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780809323906
  • Ducheyne, Steffen. 2005. "Paul Otlet's Theory of Knowledge and Linguistic Objectivism." Knowledge Organization KO 32 (3): 110.
  • Hahn, Trudi Bellardo, and Michael Keeble Buckland. Historical Studies in Information Science. ASIS monograph series. Medford, NJ: Published for the American Society for Information Science by Information Today, 1998. ISBN 9781573870627
  • Otlet, Paul, and W. Boyd Rayward. International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990. ISBN 9780444886781
  • Otlet, Paul. A World Charter Organising the Society of Nations. [St. Andrews]: W.C. Henderson & Son, 1917.
  • Otlet, Paul. The End of the War and the Establishment of a World Charter. St. Andrews: W.C. Henderson & Son, 1917.
  • Rayward, W. Boyd. 1994. "Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45 (4): 235-250.
  • Rayward, W. Boyd. 1997. "The Origins of Information Science and the International Institute of Bibliography/International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID)." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (4): 289-300.
  • Rayward, W. Boyd. European Modernism and the Information Society: Informing the Present, Understanding the Past. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2008. ISBN 0754649288
  • Rayward, W. Boyd. Paul Otlet, Internationalist and Bibliographer. Ph. D. Thesis —University of Chicago, Graduate Library School, 1973.
  • Rieusset-Lemarie, Isabelle. 1997. "P. Otlet's Mundaneum and the International Perspective in the History of Documentation and Information Science." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (4): 301-309.
  • Union of International Associations. Union of International Associations, 1910-1970: Past, Present, Future; Sixtieth Anniversary. 1970.
  • Wallace, Danny P. Knowledge Management: Historical and Cross-Disciplinary Themes. Libraries Unlimited knowledge management series. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2007. ISBN 1591585023

Online sources

External links

All links retrieved March 5, 2015.


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