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Paul Otlet, Documentation and Classification.

Boyd Rayward, Jonathan Furner, Kathryn La Barre

ASIS&T Annual Meeting - 2006 (ASIS&T 2006)
Austin, Texas, November 3-9, 2006


In 2002 the well-known Belgian documentary film maker, Françoise Levie, released her account of the life of Paul Otlet, The Man Who Wanted to Classify the World: From the Index Card to the World City, the Visionary Life of a Belgian Utopian, Paul Otlet (1868-1940). (65 minute video - Sofidoc Production, 46 rue Colonel Bourg, B-1030 Brussels, Belgium.) Clip of the film: _traite.wmv

Her deeply researched film is at once biographical and a study of the ideas that led Otlet to conceive of the Mundaneum, a world organization dedicated to the management of the world’s knowledge as the basis for a new kind of world community. She recounts not only his contacts with the famous architect Le Corbusier and the rather strange American sculptor Hendrik Anderson, who sought to establish an international communications center, but also Otlet’s own speculations about new kinds of information technologies for managing and transmitting knowledge that prefigure what has now become possible with the Internet and the World Wide Web.

There has been considerable interest in having this film shown at an ASIS&T meeting and it will form the centerpiece of this SIG/HFIS session on documentation and the origins of information science. A panel discussion to follow the screening will provide context and grounding for the film.

Otlet coined the term “Documentation” in 1903 and his ideas about this, set forth in a voluminous body of writing that culminated in 1934 in his magisterial Traité de Documentation , which might well be considered the first text book on information science, were widely influential in Europe and not without impact in the US, at least in the period before the outbreak of World War II. Central to the new technologies Otlet proposed was the Universal Decimal Classification, originally derived with permission from Dewey’s Decimal Classification but then enormously expanded and given new linguistic capabilities that made it the first great faceted classification. But it was not merely the UDC itself that intrigued the information scientists and librarians who followed Otlet, but the nature, value and role of new approaches to bibliographical and knowledge classification for transforming our understanding of information retrieval more generally that he had highlighted in his work. In the UK these ideas were embodied in S.C. Bradford’s collection of essays published simply as Documentation, in 1948, the year of his death, and republished with an extensive introduction by Jesse Shera and Margaret Egan in 1953. This new interest in classification, strongly influenced by the ideas of the Indian librarian, Ranganathan, about faceted classification for which the UDC was an imperfect prototype, informed the creation of the still active Classification Research Group in the UK, the Classification Research Study Group in the US, which became SIG/CR, and the Library Circle in India.

In the US, European ideas about Documentation were reflected in the creation of the American Documentation Institute in 1937. The letterhead of the ADI for a time even carried a definition of documentation derived from the European definition. Broader concerns for what documentation was and how it related to librarianship and what was soon to be called information science were the subject of several papers by Jesse Shera. And he and others, also influenced by Ranganathan, were active in creating the North American Classification Research Study Group to examine new ways of thinking about knowledge organization. At the basis of all of these endeavors were ideas of “documentation” that ultimately derive from the work of Paul Otlet and his European colleagues, though the links to these ideas have become obscured with time.

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