So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…
Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
This is one for the ‘I can’t make up stuff this great’ files. Back in the last throes of the Victorian era, the field of information science was already well developed. Forget Google. Forget Wikipedia. Before all that, and the Internet, was the Mundaneum. The Mundaneum was the proto-World Wide Web.
It was first conceived and co-founded in 1895, by two Belgian gentlemen lawyers: Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine. It started existence as the Institut International de Bibliographie, in Brussels. Otlet and La Fontaine began with a collection of index cards, with the intention of cataloguing facts, all the facts … they meant to record and file every fact in the world. They had over 400,000 entries by the end of 1895. By 1937, it was estimated there were over 15 million index cards, housed in a left wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, and staffed by librarians. Otlet and La Fontaine convinced the Belgian government to support the creation and running of the Mundaneum for most of the first four decades of the Twentieth century.
Imagine the thousands of drawers that would be required to file so many millions of three inch by five inch index cards. Those librarians were made of stern stuff.
The stated goal of Otlet and La Fontaine was to gather together all the world’s knowledge, and then classify and catalogue it according to a bibliographic and library classification system they developed called the Universal Decimal System – it was based on the Dewey Decimal Classification system. This system meant that retrieval of the facts was relatively straight forward, even from such an enormous data base. The system allowed (and still allows) related fields of knowledge – such as text, maps, charts – to be linked and so form a coherent whole. Now, this is where the Mundaneum started to really resemble the modern construct of the World Wide Web.
From 1896, people could apply – by mail or telegraph – to the staff of the Mundaneum for answers to specific questions. Otlet set this function up as a fee-based service, to help cover the costs of running the service and continue funding the collection of facts. By 1912, this service was answering around four or five queries a day, or the equivalent of 1500 queries a year.
Paul Otlet hoped to see a ‘city of knowledge’ (as he nicknamed the Mundaneum) in each major city around the world, with Brussels holding the master copy. The attempt was made to make this a reality, but the sheer size of the project created problems in duplicating the collection. But this isn’t to say La Fontaine wasn’t a dreamer too; both men hoped to help create a world with information available to all and education provided to men and women; both men proposed and supported the idea of organizations such as a world school and university, and a world parliament. Henri La Fontaine went on to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, partially due to his support for these ideals.
Unfortunately, even though the founders of the Mundaneum were men of peace, it was WWII that derailed their great project. The Belgian government withdrew their funding and support as the 1930s drew to a close and war loomed. The Mundaneum had to be moved to smaller, less suitable quarters. The amount of index cards, even with the brilliant classification system, was unworkable at the new site; if only the system had been able to use computer storage systems like we have today. Then, when Brussels was invaded in 1939, the Nazis destroyed many of the boxes of index cards. To be fair, they destroyed the index cards not so much out of malice as from a lack of understanding of the files’ true value. After the war, with files in disorder and no chance of funding, the Mundaneum was all but forgotten.
The Mundaneum was allowed to moulder until 1968, when a student named W. Boyd Rayward rediscovered the remnants of the index cards and created a renewed interest in what the project had achieved. Eventually, what remained of the project was housed in the Mundaneum museum in Mons. In a twist that astounds and thrills me, Google is talking about funding a travelling Mundaneum exhibit. If it makes it to Australia, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.
The whole concept of the Mundaneum fascinates me. Unlike Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, the Mundaneum was an intellectual dream that saw the light of day and had an actual useful existence for over forty years. Not to denigrate Charles Babbage – we all know how much I adore the man – but Otlet and La Fontaine were able to see the fruits of their ideals blossom and thrive. Sadly, Paul Otlet died in relative obscurity, and it is only recently that he has gained recognition as a visionary and the father of information science. He died in 1944, and Henri La Fontaine died in 1943, so neither of them lived to see the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web. More’s the pity. They would have loved the Information Age.
*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!