Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Mundaneum

I demand an investigation.

I demand an inquiry.

I want to know why the %$!$ I've never heard of the Mundaneum Project ...
The Mundaneum Museum Honors the First Concept of the World Wide Web

...Using 3 by 5 index cards (then the state of the art in storage technology), they went on to create a vast paper database with more than 12 million individual entries.

Otlet and LaFontaine eventually persuaded the Belgian government to support their project, proposing to build a “city of knowledge” that would bolster the government’s bid to become host of the League of Nations. The government granted them space in a government building, where Otlet expanded the operation. He hired more staff, and established a fee-based research service that allowed anyone in the world to submit a query via mail or telegraph — a kind of analog search engine. Inquiries poured in from all over the world, more than 1,500 a year, on topics as diverse as boomerangs and Bulgarian finance.

As the Mundaneum evolved, it began to choke on the sheer volume of paper. Otlet started sketching ideas for new technologies to manage the information overload. At one point he posited a kind of paper-based computer, rigged with wheels and spokes that would move documents around on the surface of a desk. Eventually, however, Otlet realized the ultimate answer involved scrapping paper altogether.

Since there was no such thing as electronic data storage in the 1920s, Otlet had to invent it. He started writing at length about the possibility of electronic media storage, culminating in a 1934 book, “Monde,” where he laid out his vision of a “mechanical, collective brain” that would house all the world’s information, made readily accessible over a global telecommunications network.

Tragically, just as Otlet’s vision began to crystallize, the Mundaneum fell on hard times. In 1934, the Belgian government lost interest in the project after losing its bid for the League of Nations headquarters. Otlet moved it to a smaller space, and after financial struggles had to close it to the public.

A handful of staff members kept working on the project, but the dream ended when the Nazis marched through Belgium in 1940. The Germans cleared out the original Mundaneum site to make way for an exhibit of Third Reich art, destroying thousands of boxes filled with index cards. Otlet died in 1944, a broken and soon-to-be-forgotten man.

After Otlet’s death, what survived of the original Mundaneum was left to languish in an old anatomy building of the Free University in the Parc Leopold until 1968, when a young graduate student named W. Boyd Rayward picked up the paper trail. Having read some of Otlet’s work, he traveled to the abandoned office in Brussels, where he discovered a mausoleum like room full of books and mounds of paper covered in cobwebs....

How did this all go missing? Twelve million index cards? Everyone just forgot about it?

What else from this era has been forgotten? (For relatively modern variants, see these links).

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