The Mundaneum: a steampunk version of the world-wide web

Belgian card-indexes don’t feature very much in the history of the internet or lists of amazing human achievements.

But (as I’ve belatedly discovered) they should, in the form of the Mundaneum – an amazing piece of trailblazing information collection and conceptual breakthroughs starting the last 19th century. Mostly forgotten, it has in the last decade started to get the recognition that its creators, lawyers Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, deserve.

In a feature piece a decade ago, the New York Times asked:

“The problem is that no one knows the story of the Mundaneum,” said the lead archivist, Stéphanie Manfroid. “People are not necessarily excited to go see an archive. It’s like, would you rather go see the latest ‘Star Wars’ movie, or would you rather go see a giant card catalog?”

Even if your answer is Star Wars (better version available here), the index cards should still interest. That’s because, as Atlas Obscura describes it:

When the Mundaneum opened in 1910, its purpose was to collect all of the world’s knowledge on neatly organized 3 x 5 index cards. The brainchild of Belgian lawyer Paul Otlet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri LaFontaine, the vast project eventually totaled 12 million cards, each classified according to the Universal Decimal Classification system developed by Otlet…

Though Otlet’s name is little remembered today outside the field of information science, he deserves credit for developing many of the ideas behind the modern internet.

That includes his vision of a network of ‘electric telescopes’,  joining people together across the globe and allowing them to search all across human knowledge. Index cards, electricity and telegraphs were in Otlet’s vision – a  steampunk version of the world-wide web.


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