Histories: When the internet was made of paper

"Histories: When the internet was made of paper" 22 March 2008 From New Scientist Print Edition. Many libraries have the print edition of New Scientist. If your library is one of these, you will enjoy this article. "For some, the highlight of a trip to Belgium is a visit to an ancient brewery or a demonstration of diamond cutting. When Australian Boyd Rayward travelled to Brussels in 1968 there was only one sight he wanted to see: a disused university anatomy theatre. Unusual? Perhaps, but Rayward was a graduate student in library science, and the cobwebby old theatre with leaking skylights housed something he had to see before it vanished forever. Inside the gloomy theatre, Rayward found piles of papers and archives that had remained untouched since 1944. These were the last remnants of the Mundaneum, a vast and visionary attempt at an immense proto-internet made from the most unlikely of materials: 3-by-5-inch index cards." "UNLIKELY as it sounds now, the hottest thing in information technology was once the index card. In the US, for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of medical files until the newfangled method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Soon hundreds of clerks were transcribing personnel records dating back to the War of Independence. Housed in Ford's Theatre in Washington DC - the scene of Abraham Lincoln's assassination a generation earlier - the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death." "...Otlet's efforts were not all for naught. His modifications to the Dewey system resulted in universal decimal classification, which remains in use today, and his ideas presaged such proto-internet systems as H. G. Wells's proposed "World Brain" in 1937, Vannevar Bush's proposed Memex in 1945, and the OCLC worldwide library online catalogue now relied upon by millions." "Today the Mundaneum's remaining cabinets are arranged in symbolic disarray in a former department store to tell the story of Otlet's dream and its destruction. Even the surviving files present a nearly unmanageable hoard of information. "Otlet kept absolutely everything, every little scribble," says Rayward. "Sorting through it will take generations of scholars." From issue 2648 of New Scientist magazine, 22 March 2008, page 46-47