Paul Otlet

Paul Otlet

The Belgian Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet (1868–1944) from Brussels was an author, entrepreneur, visionary, lawyer and peace activist, and which the most important for us—he is one of several people who have been considered the father of information science. Otlet started his work on how to collect and organize the world's knowledge in 1890s and towards the end of working life he summarized his ideas in two large books of synthesis, the Traité de documentation in 1934 and Monde: Essai d'universalisme in 1935.

His monumental book Traité de documentation (Brussels, 1934) was both central and symbolic in the development of information science (which he called Documentation) in the first half of 20th century. It reminds us also of something that has been too widely forgotten: That this field did have a lively existence in the early decades of 20th century and a sophistication concerning theory and information technology that now commonly surprises people.

Otlet was the most central figure in the development of Documentation. He struggled tirelessly for decades with the most important technical, theoretical, and organizational aspects of a problem, which is central to mankind: How to make recorded knowledge available to those who need it. He thought deeply and wrote endlessly as he designed, developed, and initiated ambitious solutions at his Institute in Brussels.

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 organization.

In his Traité de Documentation, Otlet speculated imaginatively about online communications, text-voice conversion and what is needed in computer work stations, though of course he does not use this terminology.

Otlet wrote expressively of the need for an international information handling system embracing everything, from the creation of an entry in a catalogue to new forms of publication, from the management of libraries, archives and museums as interrelated information agencies to the collaborative elaboration of a universal encyclopedia codifying all of man's hitherto unmanageable knowledge. Central to all of this were the so called Universal Decimal Classification, a new kind of information agency for information management, called the Office of Documentation, a new principle of information indexing and storage, the monographic principle, and microfilm. Ultimately he foresaw the creation of a Universal Network for Information and Documentation, to which access would be had by multimedia workstations, that lay waiting to be invented just beyond the technological capacity of his time.

In the same Traité de Documentation, 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.