Sunday, July 24, 2011

A knowledge database, decades before databases existed?

I was intrigued to read an article in Der Spiegel about an information archive that came into being around the time of World War I, decades before computers were even thought of - and it's still in existence today!

The world's first search engine is made of wood and paper. Specifically, it consists of rows of dark brown cabinets about as tall as a person, filled with boxes of index cards. "Sixteen million index cards," notes Jacques Gillen, laying one hand on a cabinet handle.

Gillen is an archivist at the Mundaneum, the institution that operated this gigantic catalogue in the 1920s. Inquiries came into Brussels by letter or telegram, as many as 1,500 of them a year, and the answers were then found by hand, a process that sometimes took weeks. The project was something like a paper Google, but developed decades before the Internet and without the benefit of computers.

Belgian librarian Paul Otlet created the Mundaneum. A trained lawyer from a wealthy family, Otlet wanted to map out the world's knowledge and preserve it in his wooden cabinets. He envisioned collecting all of the books ever published and interlinking them using an archival system he developed himself.

Gillen, the archivist, fishes an index card out of a box. From the jumble of numbers written on the card, he can decipher dozens of pieces of information about the book to which the card refers. Many modern researchers agree that with this archival system, developed around the turn of the last century, Otlet essentially invented hypertext, the network of links that help us navigate around the Internet today. "You could call Otlet one of the original minds behind the Internet," Gillen says, placing the card back in its box.

. . .

... without the aid of electronic data processing, Otlet developed ideas whose application we know today under names such as Web 2.0 and Wikipedia. Yet Otlet's name and his work are largely forgotten. Americans Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart are considered the minds behind hypertext and the Internet, while the remains of the Mundaneum collection spent decades rotting in dilapidated attics.

. . .

Despite these visionary ideas, Otlet's Mundaneum suffered a harsh setback in 1934 when it was forced to close after its financial backers in the Belgian government lost interest in the project. When the Nazis marched into Brussels in 1940, they removed the collection from the "Palais Mondial" in the city's center and exhibited Nazi artwork there instead.

Otlet's vision of peace through knowledge had failed and he died in 1944, impoverished and bitter. It wasn't until 1968 that American researcher W. Boyd Rayward discovered parts of the collection. Rayward researched further, eventually managing to reopen the Mundaneum in 1998, on a somewhat smaller scale and located in the provincial town of Mons, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) outside of Brussels. Here, archivist Gillen and his colleagues are still sorting through masses of documents that amount to six kilometers (four miles) of archival material.

More than 60 years after his death, many of Otlet's ideas have become reality, and researchers and Internet experts are taking an interest in his thoughts on the "mechanical brain." Otlet's conception of a dynamic body of global knowledge, one which requires constant additions and is shaped collectively, bears clear similarities to the concept behind the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Similarly, Otlet had thoughts on how to incorporate into his networked catalogue of knowledge different annotations that would correct mistakes or reveal contradictions.

. . .

The staff at the Mundaneum in Mons is currently digitalizing Otlet's work, in order to make it available online. This process may take quite a long time, Gillen warns, but when it's done Otlet's vision will finally come true -- his collection of knowledge will be available to the world, paperless and open to all.

There's more at the link, and at the links provided in the article (including the Mundaneum's Web site, unfortunately available only in French). There's also a photo gallery of historical images. Fascinating reading.


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