Mundaneum, Utopia of Materialized Information
If it had been accomplished, the Mundaneum would be an academic Mecca, comparable to the Library of Alexandria.
Since the first Adam who beheld the night
And the day and the shape of his own hand,
Men have made up stories and have fixed
In stone, in metal, or on parchment
Whatever the world includes or dreams create.
Here is the fruit of their labor: the Library.
They say the wealth of volumes it contains
Outnumbers the stars or the grains
Of sand in the desert.
“Alexandria, 641 A.D.”, J.L. Borges
As we know, one of the most established ideas of Paradise is that everything there is “at the reach of our hand”. One only needs to reach out to eat, drink, cover up, procreate. Today we have a taste of paradise by just sitting before a computer: at the reach of our hands there is, supposedly, all the information we know, and that which we know we ignore. But before the 2.0, many years before this model of invisible technology, there was a tangible model: a palace made of filing cabinets that pretended to put all the world’s information literally at the reach of our hand, in the shape of 3 X 5¨ index cards.
The Mundaneum, as this utopia was called, was Paul Otlet’s (1868-1944) brainchild, forefather of documentation and inventor of the Universal Decimal Classification together with his friend and future Nobel Prize Winner Henry La Fontaine. The idea was to collect the bibliographic information of every book that had ever been published, along with a vast collection of newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, posters and other assorted media.
The project, of course, does not end with a mere academic archive. The Mundaneum was going to form the central axis of the Cité Mondiale. A university city that would be an academic Mecca, comparable to the Library of Alexandria, but instead of books it would have information about books.
If his project was achieved, anyone sitting on an armchair could have been able to contemplate the totality of creation, in whole or in certain parts.. And all of it contained in an enormous furniture conformed by millions of small, organized and numbered little drawers. Otlet’s paradise was one of maximum consultability, an analogous proto-internet, complete and hyperlinked.
In 1934, Otlet visualized plans for a global network of machines (Or “Electronic Telescopes”, as he called them), which would allow people to search millions of interconnected networks that would not just put information at the reach of their hands, but would also allow them to write down the relation between one text and another. The links between documents would complete the persistent utopia of a Universal Book.
Otlet himself declared that no document could be completely understood on its own, but from the image that emerged when it was seen as a whole, from imagining it as interconnected in a giant system that he called réseau (network or human knowledge).
A radical conjecture would consider that all knowledge, all information could be condensed in such a way that it could be contained by a limited number of works set out on a desk, hence at the reach of the hand, and indexed in a way that would guarantee its maximum consultability. The Universal Book formed from all books would have become very approximately an annexe to the brain, the substratum of memory, an exterior mechanism and instrument of the mind, but so close to it and so fitted to its use that is would truly be a sort of appended, exodermic organ.
(Paul Otlet, Treatise of Documentation, 1934)
Even the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was fascinated by the idea, and together with Norwegian sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen began to design the utopian city. They proposed several cities, including The Hague in Holland and New Jersey in the United States —but, needless to say, the city was never built. The Mundaneum, which opened its doors in 1910, was originally hosted in the Palais du Cinquantenaire, in Brussels (Belguim), but was moved to a series of ever-smaller locations —where a great part of the collection was lost— until it wounded up in an abandoned garage in Mons (Valona).
What remains of the Mundaneum can be visited today in an Art Deco factory in Mons, Belgium. The collection remains chaotic, but it is displayed so that it looks like an art exhibition. There are still hundreds of non-catalogued boxes, and the archivists say it could take more than a hundred years to scan all the documents… and finally make them available online.
But one thing is certain: Otlet was one of the first to understand that information is independent of its means —that changing the way in which a document is stored does not change its content. After all, a book is just a means to say something, and an index card is just a means to lead us to that book that says something.
Perhaps the most important thing in Otlet’s legacy was that he made clear that a utopia —even if of titanic proportions and if it gets stuck halfway through— is a means to conceive another utopia. Today, through the Internet and the hyperlink, we have our informatics paradise, our own “City of Intellect” at the reach of our hands.
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