(2003-11-19) Paul Otlet

Alex Wright on Paul Otlet. In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the Memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term HyperText, Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar's workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3x5 Index Card-s. This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between one another, "the connections each (document) has with all other (documents), forming from them what might be called the Universal Book." (Intertwingularity) Taking the Dewey Decimal System as his starting point, Otlet began developing what came to be known as the Universal Decimal Classification, now widely recognized as the first - and one of the only - full implementations of a faceted classification system... Otlet biographer Boyd Rayward describes the Traite as "perhaps the first systematic, modern discussion of general problems of organising information." With the faceted philosophy of the UDC as backdrop, the Traite posited a universal "law of organization" declaring that no document could be properly understood by itself, but that its meaning becomes clarified through its influence on other documents, and vice versa.

Update: Clay Shirky on the silliness of the UDC, as repeated by Yahoo ontologists and the Semantic Web.

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