The same spirit that animated Otlet and La Fontaine’s efforts to make information useful and meaningful to people in the 20th century motivates the current efforts of Indiana University’s information scientists to do the same for those of us in the 21st century. - Todd Theirault
The Mundaneum museum, located in the quiet university town of Mons, Belgium, is a testament to humanity’s rage for order. Contained within this unusual museum is a vast collection of documents—all that remains of the attempt by two Belgian lawyers to collect and categorize the whole of human thought. It is estimated that, if placed side by side, the museum’s contents would stretch six kilometers (nearly four miles). This October, because of contributions from the Places & Spaces: Mapping Science exhibit and SLIS professor Katy Börner’s Atlas of Science, that distance will get just a bit greater.
Information and timelines from the Atlas, along with the map of Science-Related Wikipedian Activity, an important piece of the Places & Spaces exhibit, will be on display at the Mundaneum until July 2013 as part of the museum’s newest exhibition, Renaissance 2.0: A Journey through the Origins of the Web. To understand what a museum largely composed of card catalogs has to do with Wikipedia or the web (and why, perhaps, Renaissance 2.0 is being sponsored by Google), one needs to understand the passions and purposes of those two exemplary Belgians.
Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine dreamed up the idea of the "Repertoire Bibliographique Universel" at the tail end of the 19th century. The RBU was to be a compendium of the world’s ideas, carefully copied onto 3x5 index cards that would number as many as 16 million by 1934. Otlet and La Fontaine were staunch believers that the dissemination of knowledge was the key to achieving a peaceful world. La Fontaine was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1913 for his efforts toward that goal.
Meanwhile, Otlet occupied himself with overseeing the RBU, writing seminal books on documentation, creating futuristic workspaces, and designing utopian cities. Oh, and there’s a pretty good argument to be made that, by 1934, he had already "thought up the internet." It was in that year that Otlet’s Treatise on Documentation outlined a plan to use phone lines and television signals to create what he called "The Radiated Library." Users would simply dial up one of the many Mundaneums that were to be located in major cities around the globe and request a book or "search" for information on a topic. An employee at the Mundaneum would then place the relevant text in front of a camera, and the image would appear on the user’s screen. In this way, scholars could have access to a vast network of information without ever leaving the comfort of their desks.
As plans for Radiated Libraries, Mundaneums, and all-encompassing classification systems illustrate, Otlet and La Fontaine realized that all the knowledge in the world was useless without access and order. For this reason, the inclusion of The Atlas of Science and Places & Spaces in the Mundaneum makes for a good fit. The same spirit that animated Otlet and La Fontaine’s efforts to make information useful to people in the 20th century motivates the current efforts of Indiana University’s information scientists to do the same for those of us in the 21st century. Books like The Atlas of Science and an exhibit like Places & Spaces offer us stunning new ways of looking at data, fresh perspectives on our ever-expanding landscape of human knowledge.
From radiated libraries to lighting-speed search engines, from hand-drawn maps of nautical routes to computer-generated maps of scientific research, our tools of understanding have evolved to keep pace with our desire for exploration. To take an index card from a wooden cabinet in Belgium or enter a search term into a database in Bloomington is to stare once again out into the wilderness of human experience, hold forth a compass, and chart a course.
• Release prepared by Todd Theriault, Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center, SLIS, Indiana University.
Posted October 08, 2012