I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times: Paul Otlet

There is something simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking in watching this clip from the 2002 documentary about Paul Otlet, The Man Who Wanted To Classify the World by Francoise Levie, on the internet.  Otlet was a man, a scholar and an activist who had ideas that were before his time, and other ideas that are even ahead of our time.   

Otlet was born in 1868 in Brussels, he is introduced as a curious and solitary young man who became interested in classification on his childhood summer trips to Ile du Levant where he would collect keepsakes from the beach.  This passion for collection and preservation is continually nodded to in the documentary by cutting between clips of Francoise Levie and her young intern diving into envelopes, photographs and even torn up letters.  It is made very clear that Otlet truly did want to organize all of the information in the world, he saw the importance of preserving documents of the mundane, heartbreak and professional achievement.  

Among the many achievements of Paul Otlet, he developed the International Federation for Information and Documentation and The Universal Bibliographic Repertory with his colleague, Henri La Fontaine.  The UBR was a collection of index cards elucidating an ever growing  collection of facts.  As an extension of this project, Otlet recognized the value of photography and invented microfilm, a technology still valuable today.  

I was deeply stuck by Otlet’s tenacity, despite the failure of several utopian-community projects, such as the Mundaneum, he continued to pursue his dream of a city dedicated to free information and knowledge.  

Otlet’s work continues to resonate after his death in 1944.  His ideas predate Vannevar Bush’s concept of the memex, and his plans for world-knowledge centers mirror the attempts of the World’s Fair.