The Web Time Forgot

On a fog-drizzled Monday afternoon, this fading medieval city feels like a forgotten place. Apart from the obligatory Gothic cathedral, there is not much to see here except for a tiny storefront museum called the Mundaneum, tucked down a narrow street in the northeast corner of town. It feels like a fittingly secluded home for the legacy of one of technology’s lost pioneers: Paul Otlet.

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or “electric telescopes,” as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a “réseau,” which might be translated as “network” — or arguably, “web.”

Full story here.


1868–10 December 1944) was the founding father of documentation, the field of study now more commonly referred to as information science. Born in Belgium, Otlet created the Universal Decimal Classification, one of the most prominent examples of faceted classification. Otlet was responsible for the widespread adoption in Europe of the standard American 3x5 inch index card used until recently in most library catalogs around the world, though largely displaced by the advent of online public access catalogs (OPAC). Otlet wrote numerous essays on how to collect and organize the world’s knowledge, culminating in two books, the Traité de documentation (1934) and Monde: Essai d'universalisme (1935).

Full Wikipedia entry on Otlet here.

One of the founding fathers of the Web got his start as a school librarian? How cool is that?

Hope the school librarian associations pick up on this :-)

From the article: "Otlet's version of hypertext held a few important advantages over today's Web. For one thing, he saw a smarter kind of hyperlink. Whereas links on the Web today serve as a kind of mute bond between documents, Otlet envisioned links that carried meaning, for example, annotating if particular documents agreed or disagreed with each other. That facility is notably lacking in the dumb logic of modern hyperlinks."

The dumb hyperlink is just as limiting as paper documents on our thinking. The original concepts of hyperlinks were far smarter than what was originally implemented by Tim Berners Lee, who was constrained by the technology of the 70's and 80's in what was feasible at the beginning of the World Wide Web.

The NY Times article elsewhere writes

"...Historians typicaly trace the origins of the World Wide Web through a lineage of Anglo-American invesntors like Vannevar bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson."

Librarian footnote" Doug Engelbart was the keynote at the first World Library Summit held in 2002 in Singapore

In fact Engelbart and Ted Nelson foresaw MUCH SMARTER hyperlinks than we use today.

Engelbart imagined Links that not were not only annotated like Otlet's - "agree" "disagree" "neutral" "mildly supporting" "standing ovation" but were able to contain logical arguments through a series of argued links.
his version of hyperlinks encompassed notions from IBIS - Issue-based Information Systems.

Links were so critical that a link database would be required to track links between documents, and that a programming language for link annotations could make possible different views of an entity could be presented depending on who was accessing the link. Think about a purchase order - doesn't the engineer want to see different information (quantity, product spec, delivery date) than an accounting manager (price, total cost, approval level)?

Nelson's hypertext platform ZigZag offers so many more dimensions in which text can be connected, than is available today. He saw "the main problem of creative work as version management; the main problem of publishing he saw as rights management. ....This is true now as it was in 1960 when he proposed that both these problems could be solved online by an approach "transclusion" - the virtual inclusion of material by reference. ...If we publish by reference out of a registered media pool, the origin and different uses of everything may be seen: Electronic documents need to be annotable and reusable."

Paul Otlet also creates an organization 100 years ago. It's called the Union of International Associations. I think it's important to show people that old ideas still exist. He imagines a global network of computers but he also creates a global network of World ideas. If you want to know more visit, there are some free databases on Human values, World problems, and strategies to find solutions...