Let there be more biographies of failures

Let there be more biographies of failures, people who were ignored by the world, whose ideas came before their time, whose great work was left in ruins.

The point of biography is to set an example, to teach us how other people did the things we want to do. That might be something grand like live a good life, or it might be something more mundane like manage a small company. Whatever it is, the genre suffers from selection bias. Only the successful get biographies.

But we will not all be successful, and if that is our main criteria we won’t learn as much from biography as we could. There’s a lot of fascinating information in Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, by Alex Wright, but some of the most interesting is about how Otlet was repeatedly let down by the world.

Otlet was something of a genius. After an unusual education (tutors until he was 11 as his father thought school was stifling, then a Jesuit school) Otlet did what a lot of interesting people do when they are young. He made the mistake of going to law school. The real benefit that reluctant young lawyers like Otlet get from their career is boredom. Their minds wander.

His passion was bibliography, the organising of information, and he devised a system based on organising and cataloging chunks of information. Books imprison ideas in structures that authors arbitrarily impose on them. Otlet wanted to break the ideas down to chunks and make them retrievable by anyone. He was thinking his way towards an analogue version of the internet. This was in 1892.

Otlet and his friend Henri La Fontaine, a fellow lawyer, started creating a Universal Bibliography. This would be a repository of facts, stored on index cards, making ideas searchable using a classification system.

Otlet and La Fontaine… would spend hours rifling through booksellers catalogues, published bibliographies, and other sources, cutting up each entry into slips of paper and pasting the contents onto an index card, which would then be assigned a classification number — based at first on the Dewey Decimal System — and stored in a drawer.

By the end of 1895 they had more than 400,000 entries. At that stage, the work started to seem haphazard, so they invested in a typewriter.

Professional librarians and bibliographers ridiculed their work. Otlet and La Fontaine’s dream was universality across subjects. Their work was part of a larger political belief in peace, cooperation, and universalism. Otlet was an early and eager supporter or the League of Nations. Opposition to his ideas was always partly political.

Despite the opposition, Otlet’s work continued to grow. He developed a sophisticated alternative to the Dewey Decimal System (the cataloging system dominant in libraries all over the world), and set up the Institut International de Bibliographie (IIB). World War I interrupted his progress. ‘The rape of Belgium’ was horrific. In Leuven, the town where Otlet had gone to school, the Germans poured kerosene onto the 300,000 books and manuscripts in the university library and burned them, including ‘a vast collection of priceless medieval manuscripts.’

Then Otlet’s son was killed. By now, Otlet was in his late forties, the Institut International de Bibliographie (IIB) was struggling to stay afloat, his universal system was mocked or ignored, his son was dead, and his country was in ruins.

Mercifully, the IIB survived the war, and the new Prime Minister supported its expansion. In 1921 Otlet opened the Palais Mondial (World Palace) which had 2,000 visitors a day.

Upon entering, visitors were greeted by a large sphere representing world peace, and the Francis Bacon-inspired tree of ages, depicting the evolution of life. They could then proceed through the thirty-six-room display, with each room devoted to a particular country. There were also exhibits devoted to particular scholarly disciplines — mathematics, chemistry, and palaeontology — and rooms devoted entirely to new technologies, such as a sprawling telegraph room and later a large chamber populated with the latest microfilm readers.

This new museum also had a research service. Anyone could send a request, by letter or telegraph, and for the sum of 27 francs Otlet’s staff would answer their question using the Universal Bibliograpy. This continued to grow and at its peak contained some fifteen million items. The Palais Mondial dealt with 1,500 requests a year.

Otlet’s grand dream was to have his organisation recognised and supported by the League of Nations and established on a similar foot to the League. This was not to be. Their proposal got short shrift, with a rejection from a secretary on behalf of the secretary general saying, ‘Your scheme of intellectual organisation strikes me as still a little in advance of time.’

The dream of peace, cooperation, and universalism would suffer further. In 1923 the government told him to clear out of the Palais Mondial — King Leopold II was running an imperial government, committing atrocities in Africa, and the space was going to be used to house a rubber fair. Rubber, of course, was one of the primary products of Belgium’s imperial exploitation of the Congo. It was a nasty irony that Otlet’s peace project was being evicted to make room for a display of imperial cruelty.

Otlet tried to prevent this from happening, and failed. In 1924, when men turned up to remove the contents of the museum, Otlet barricaded the doors with filing cabinets. The men stormed the building. Otlet carried on creating his collection privately, and continued to publish new ideas.

But eventually the Nazis arrived in Belgium and his life’s work was confiscated. Sixty three tons of material were destroyed. The new space Otlet had found for his work was given over to an exhibition of Third Reich art. It was a terrible end for a man who wanted to curate all human knowledge in the name of progress and peace.

Despite his trials, Otlet was a visionary. He talked of a time when ‘everyone would become his own editor’, of books fusing with other forms of knowledge like images, of a network of widely deposited documents accessible through a comprehensive index. He wanted to bring the benefits of technology into museums. He also predicted the recording of human perceptions like sound and coined the phrase hyper-documentation.

In short, he was having ideas that sound remarkably like a prototype internet. And yet he was obscure, unknown even, to the people who did eventually create the internet and the world wide web. Unlike Otlet, who favoured a massive, systematic, centralised, categorisation of knowledge, the internet was built on ideals of distribution, flat hierarchy, and emergent order. As Alex Wright says, modern internet ideals make ‘the notion of “universal classification” seem like an enormous act of cultural hubris.’ Wikpedia would be foreign to Otlet.

Right to the end, Otlet’s vision was frustrated.

So what are the lessons we can learn? It doesn’t always help to be right. Ideas aren’t easy to implement without the right combination of technology, attitudes, and luck. The work is what’s important, not the result. Maybe the cranks who fill their houses with cart loads of ephemera aren’t so crazy. Don’t make political trouble. Get a PR department. Have a partner who can do these things if you can’t. Be in the right place at the right time. Don’t get cynical, or as Churchill said, don’t let the bastards grind you down. Keep working. Philosophical and ethical beliefs matter a lot to what work you do and how you do it. Don’t be so pragmatic you end up being a conformist. Conventional schooling isn’t always the best approach for your children. Worry less about imaginative young people becoming lawyers. Being bored might give them the opportunity they need to have their big idea.


Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, by Alex Wright (US link)

Maria Popova has an excellent article about Otlet, focussed on more of his ideas and the link with the modern internet.


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