in a world in which the internet plays a central role and information is at the fingertips of almost every one, its hard to imagine that the person who had invented the idea of our current communication is almost forgotten. but it is. paul otlet (1868-1944) was a visionary avant-gardist, excentric lawyer and utopian internationalist.
as an intellectual otlet understood that the access to the universe of knowledge forms the base of a better understanding of our civilized world, even making that world more ideal to live in. together with henri la fontaine he founded the international institute of bibliography in which they searched for a profound method of classifying information. otlet invented the universal decimal classification system, still used and tought these days. together with regular 5”x3” cards he undertook his giant lifework, registering all information in the world. the belgian government supported his work and gave “the mundaneum” lodging in the cinquantenaire buildings, currently permanently hosting the national army museum.
not only was he a classifier, but also a utopian idealist. he played a central role in the peace movement and the creation of the league of nations. his international visions even resulted in collaboration with le corbusier, with whom he communicated and discussed about a utopian city of peace and knowledge. le corbusier designed the plans for it, first planned in genčve, later antwerp. but time wasn’t ready and still isn’t. his vision never came further.
so did the mundaneum. it made him a man of honour, but at the end of his life support weakened. the state couldn’t spend time and energy on this kind of project while it had to defend itself in war. after dead in 1944 his enormous database (higly technological for that time) and the person paul otlet got forgotten. the archive remained untouched several decades. at the end of the century the last parts eventually got rescued and are currently re-inventoried and exposed a the archive of mons (be). however tons were already thrown away.