Paul Otlet was a Belgian, *1868, died †1944, who perfected the Dewey Classification system as “the Universal Decimal Classification”, in his lifetime alone totalling 17 million index cards of human knowledge.
(The basic structure of the classification system, where every 10 parts are subdivided into ten and so forth, into eternity. It’s a actually an image of the capabilities of the human mind to distinguish between particles and thus make value out of everything.)
Seeing the complexity of human knowledge as an almost eternal subdivision of topics, he believed that accessibility to all knowledge for all contained it itself the road to peace for all of humankind. His own library, his “Mundaneum” reflected this vision.
(Part of the Mundaneum after years of neglect, as Paul Otlet was prevented access to it by small minded city officials, who cared little for his visions)
Most of his professional life he harbored the dream of a Universal City, a focus for “harmonious, pacifist and progressive civilization”, which he shared with an American sculptor, Hendrik Christian Andersen.
(Part of the enormous and beautiful sketch of the city of peace by Hendrik Christian Andersen)
When Andersen in the mid-30’s turned to the Italian dictator Mussolini for support to build the city, Otlet turned away in disgust, but soon found renewed support in the great architect Le Corbusier, who drew up plans and assisted him to until the very end.
Paul Otlet can be said to be among the chief architects behind the League of Nations (founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War), a unifying body of peace making among all nations, but even so his dreams of a permanent city of peace workers – politicians, intellectuals, scientist and artists working towards the abolition of war – was never recognized for real. And if it wasn’t enough that two world wars brought whole societies to their knees, and with them the real-world effects of his firm belief in pacifism; petty thinking in his own nation also destroyed his library and collections of art and science.
Even so his ideas of connecting all knowledge and making it accessible in images, audio and instant connections to anyone, anywhere, remained in the world. He described “the new book” as the combination of all existing singular medias.
His vision is basically the first 20th century version of the story of the difficult birth of the interconnectednes, which we today term “the Internet”.
(The Icon he drew for his Mundaneum)
”I repeat: My papers form a whole. Every part is related and together they compose one unique work, my archives ’Aeramundus Mundaneum’, a tool designed for world knowledge”. — Paul Otlet
A beautiful documentary, “The Man Who Wanted To Classify The World“, was created by Francoise Levie for release by Sofidoc Productions in 2002, following almost 1 year of opening and cataloguing the remains of his personal papers: 100 mice infested crates and boxes documenting every little thing in a life full of dreams, theory, planning, and action.
Paul Otlet threw nothing away. Even a torn up letter was saved in a separate envelope. But out of the boxes grew a full life, where almost no endeavour went awry:
He had found his voice and conviction in pacifism – springing from the innate need to classify and put in order everything, which mankind discovered, developed and thought – and this certainty carried him through out the whole of his life. Not a Ghandi, not a Martin Luther King working among his people, but an intellectual working from a dream so large that one would almost call it a pipe dream, if not for his total conviction: That peace among all nations was possible, if only there was a common focus on peace for all to see and believe in.
(The League of Nations, which Paul Otlet soon found to be squabbling hens)
Paul Otlet died in the winter of 1944, 8 months before the world war II was declared over.
His decimal classification system, the UDC, is still in use today. His major work on classification, ‘The Book of Books”, is still being read.
I believe his description of the organization of information is the second most important factor in any human’s awakening to consciousness, the other being the creative survival combo of curiosity and synthesis.
Choosing between data – that’s the whole point. If we don’t know when to let go of information, that counting for the species as a whole as well as the individual alone, we will succumb to undigested information. That is a given. The question I am asking myself, though, is this:
Are we giving our synthesis of information away to the search engines, and therefore now as a species becoming stressed from symbiosis with an information system, which doesn’t always work to our advantage, but presents itself as if it is always the best it can be?
Just a thought.
Read more about the documentary at True Films
Buy the documentary from Filmmakers Library for $295 (!!)
or much cheaper from Memento Productions for €25 😀
What we need to understand is that today, in the 21st century, we are all being sold a cheaper version of the New Book: the eBook reader is not the revalation of the new age. The computer is STILL the revalation – we’ve just gotten bored and want a new toy.
With our New Book we can change the world for the better. If we care.