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Part 6: Paul Otlet's House of Cards

Updated: Jul 29

After doing this blog series for approximately two months, it has become apparent to me the history of search engines is far more extensive than I first thought. The note sheet I originally sketched out had twelve parts in total, with most of the parts falling after World War II. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this week’s blog post I realized my miscalculation, and it was largely due to a man named Paul Otlet.

Unlike my previous posts, I won’t go into great detail about Otlet's early childhood and schooling. All we need to know is he was a failed lawyer who, thanks to his father’s thriving tram-building business, was well connected enough to pursue one of the most ambitious challenges in history – organizing the entirety of the world’s published information and making it accessible to the masses. If that challenge rings a bell, you’re not being mislead. That challenge was the same one Larry Page and Sergei Brin took on when they created Google a century later.

In the late 19th century, bibliography was an infantile idea. Otlet became fascinated with the idea of organizing vast amounts of information when he worked as a law clerk for the famed international lawyer and family friend Edmond Picard. He didn’t care much about becoming a lawyer, but he did develop an affinity for information and its organization. Luckily, his lawyer position allowed him to rub elbows with very influential people such as Henry Lafontaine, the eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner and fellow international lawyer. The two first met in 1891 and quickly became good friends.

In 1892, Otlet and Lafontaine were commissioned by the Belgian Society of Social and Political Sciences to bibliograph a collection of texts. Three years into this project, they became bored, as most people would doing that sort of task for three years, and decided they needed a more efficient way to catalog these texts. It was then they discovered the Dewey Decimal System which was developed twenty years earlier. Wanting to leverage this system in creating their own proprietary one, they reached out to Melville Dewey himself to ask for permission. Dewey granted them permission, and the Universal Decimal Classification System was born.

At a fundamental level, Otlet believed books were an inefficient way to find information. His argument was the information inside books was organized in the way the author intended, but the author’s organization was not necessarily useful to somebody else who was searching the book for information. His idea was to use a series of 3”x 5” index cards to “chunk” a book's information into smaller pieces so users could leverage multiple cards while answering their particular search query. These cards would then sit inside a central location where users could access them with the Universal Decimal Classification System.

The "Repertoire Bibliographique Universel" (RBU) was the manifestation of this revolutionary idea. Otlet and Lafontaine built the original RBU at the start of 1895, and by the end of the year it contained over 400,000 individual index cards. Otlet envisioned a RBU located in every major city around the world, and even started a service where users could pay a fee to have their query answered by mail. In 1912, this service responded to over 1,500 queries. Not quite the 8.5 billion queries Google receives daily, but still a remarkable achievement in the pre-internet days.

Sadly, the world would not continue to be kind to Otlet. World War I put a pause on his efforts to continue developing the RBU and the grand vision behind it. He attempted to flee to the United States and work on it there, but he was unable to receive funding and was forced to return to occupied Belgium. When the War ended in 1918, Otlet began to slowly lose the support of many institutions who supported his initial efforts. Although he continued to develop his ideas around information management, including storing information on microfilm and creating a “World City” in which all the world’s leaders would reside along with all the world’s information, he was slowly fading into irrelevancy.

The only tangible piece of his life’s work, the original RBU, reached 15 million cards by 1934. In that year, it was taken over by the Third Reich and converted into an art gallery. His fade into obscurity continued until his death in 1944. Like many great visionaries, Otlet’s contributions to search engines were not fully appreciated at the time. He would lay the foundation for several major innovators, many of whom we will talk about in future blogs. I highly encourage you to tune in for these not just for my own sake, but for the sake of keeping this man’s incredible, transcendent vision alive.

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