Paul Otlet: Universe, Intelligence, Science, Book

Paul Otlet: Universe, Intelligence, Science, Book

Paul Otlet was a revolutionary ‘documentarist‘ – (a student of what we now call ‘information science’, or ‘information architecture’) . In the early 20th century, he conceived of a world library based on a universal decimal classification (akin to the Dewey Decimal Index), and in the 1930s published his masterwork: The Treatise on Documentation, along with a number of drawings and diagrams explaining his vision for the Munduneum –  a world library. This diagram shows how we process information about the universe into categories, then into books and documents, which we classify and order into ontologies and eventually into some form of encyclopaedia. Our current most appropriate form for the encyclopaedia is the online, multimedia one we call wikipedia. Otlet was envisioning this in 1934.

“The illustrations from personal papers of Paul Otlet (Papiers Personnels Paul Otlet) are reproduced with the permission of the Mundaneum, 15 Rues Passages, B-700 Mons, Belgium ( The author is highly indebted to Stéphanie Manfroid, the Director of the Mundaneum, for her kind assistance during his consultation of the archives.
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to document how Paul Otlet, founding-father of what is termed at present as “information science”, attempted to provide a complete “image of the world” (and reality in general) by establishing the scientific discipline he dubbed “documentation”. The paper also aims to focus on how Otlet represented human knowledge and reality in a systematic and unified way.

Design/methodology/approach – A close reading of Otlet’s primary works and some of his personal archives was undertaken.

Findings – Most importantly, it is shown that Otlet’s views on documentation were immersed in a cosmological, objectivist, humanitarian and ontological framework that is alien to contemporary information science. Correspondingly, his alleged affinity with positivism is reassessed.

Originality/value – The philosophical foundations of the origins of information science are highlighted. Indirectly, this paper is relevant to the ongoing debate on realism and anti-realism in information science.”


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