(Roughly) Daily

“Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.”*…

 

Belgian information activist Paul Otlet (1927)

More than a century ago, Belgian information activist Paul Otlet envisioned a universal compilation of knowledge and the technology to make it globally available. He foresaw, in other words, some of the possibilities of today’s Web.

Otlet’s ideas provide an important pivot point in the history of recording knowledge and making it accessible. In classical times, the best-known example of the knowledge enterprise was the Library of Alexandria. This great repository of knowledge was built in the Egyptian city of Alexandria around 300 BCE by Ptolemy I and was destroyed between 48 BCE and 642 CE, supposedly by one or more fires. The size of its holdings is also open to question, but the biggest number that historians cite is 700,000 papyrus scrolls, equivalent to perhaps 100,000 modern books…

Any hope of compacting all we know today into 100,000 books—or 28 encyclopedic volumes—is long gone. The Library of Congress holds 36 million books and printed materials, and many university libraries also hold millions of books. In 2010, the Google Books Library Project examined the world’s leading library catalogs and databases. The project, which scans hard copy books into digital form, estimated that there are 130 million existing individual titles. By 2013, Google had digitized 20 million of them.

This massive conversion of books to bytes is only a small part of the explosion in digital information. Writing in the Financial Times, Stephen Pritchard notes that humanity generated almost 2 trillion gigabytes of varied data in 2011, an amount projected to double every two years, forming a growing trove of Big Data available on about 1 billion websites… Search engines let us trek some distance into this world, but other approaches can allow us to explore it more efficiently or deeply. A few have sprung up. Wikipedia, for instance, classifies Web content under subject headings…

But there is a bigger question: Can we design an overall approach that would reduce the “static” and allow anyone in the world to rapidly pinpoint and access any desired information? That’s the question Paul Otlet raised and answered—in concept if not in execution. Had he fully succeeded, we might today have a more easily navigable Web.

Otlet, born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1868, was an information science pioneer. In 1895, with lawyer and internationalist Henri La Fontaine, he established the International Institute of Bibliography, which would develop and distribute a universal catalog and classification system. As Boyd Rayward writes in the Journal of Library History, this was “no more and no less than an attempt to obtain bibliographic control over the entire spectrum of recorded knowledge.”…

The remarkable story in full at: “The internet before the internet: Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum.”

* Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

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As we try to comprehend comprehensiveness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1985 that the first .com Internet domain, symbolics.com, was registered by Symbolics, a now-defunct Massachusetts computer company.

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Written by LW

March 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

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