When Julius Caesar was besieged at Alexandria, in 48 BC, his soldiers set fire to their own ships to clear the wharves and block the fleet belonging to Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIV.
The fire spread to the parts of the city nearest to the docks, causing considerable devastation and destroying over 40,000 scrolls from the Library of Alexandria.
Recognized as one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria had an estimated 400,000 papyrus scrolls at the height of its glory.
It was the first library to allow the public access along with scholars. Established as a center of learning by Ptolemy I Soter, who was a long-time friend and companion of Alexander the Great, served as one of his generals, and was a historian who valued knowledge.
Ptolemy I Soter became the ruler of Egypt after the death of Alexander and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt until the end of Cleopatra in 30 BC.
The libraries of old consisted of archives of the earliest forms of writing. From clay tablets of commercial transactions dating back to 2600 BC discovered in Sumer, to the Epics of Creation and Gilgamesh tablets found in Nineveh, as well as the papyrus temple records of Ancient Egypt.
Evidence suggests those early libraries had classification systems to manage the growing numbers of tablets and scrolls they had to archive and maintain.
The Library of Alexandria included a cataloging department. Ancient Greek and Roman libraries organized the papyrus scrolls by subject and then by author. Libraries of the middle ages divided books into topics by university faculty before alphabetizing by author.
Other systems to sort and preserve knowledge were created by later scholars. One of the most notable and significant was the creation of the Encyclopédie in 1751 by Denis Diderot, a French philosopher, art critic, and writer.
The Encyclopédie was published between 1751 and 1772 in 28 volumes and was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named writers.
It wasn’t too long before its secular tone, and inclusion of articles skeptical about Biblical miracles angered both religious and government authorities and drove the Catholic Church and the French government to ban it.
That didn’t stop the Encyclopédie from being a critical influence of the French Revolution, due to its emphasis on Enlightenment political theories, and calling for a shift of political authority to the people.
As Europe and the United States made the transition to new manufacturing processes with the rise of mechanized factory systems, almost every aspect of the 18th-century daily life was impacted in some way.
For the first time in history, the population, average income, and living standards of the masses of ordinary people began to experience unprecedented sustained growth.
With growth came the rising need to spread knowledge of innovation. Encyclopedias and periodical publications about manufacturing and technology started to appear in the last decade of the 18th century.
The proliferation of books, articles, and periodicals continued with the middle classes’ sharp increase in numbers and influence. As more people moved to cities and longed for a better life, they hungered for learning and sought knowledge.
The growing need for a trained workforce combined with the national interest and increased pressure from leading intellectuals influenced the progress of education. Which led some countries to establish public educational systems early in the 19th century.
In 1891, Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet, a young lawyer from Brussels, met Henri La Fontaine, a fellow lawyer with shared interests in bibliography and international relations. The two became good friends.
Otlet was concerned with the rapid proliferation of knowledge. Together with La Fontaine, they decided to expand the Dewey Decimal Classification, which they discovered in 1895.
With permission from Melvil Dewey, who first published his proprietary library classification system in the United States in 1876, they began work on the expansion and created the Universal Decimal Classification.
They also created the Universal Bibliographic Repertory (RBU), a collection of index cards, meant to catalogue facts which quickly grew to 400,000 entries by the end of 1895. Soon after, in 1896, Otlet set up a fee-based service to answer questions by mail. The service would send copies of the relevant index cards in response to each query.
The service was responding to over 1,500 queries a year by 1912.
In 1913, La Fontaine won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in advancing the peace movement in Europe. He invested his winnings into his bibliographic ventures with Otlet, which were suffering from lack of funding.
Otlet and La Fontaine envisioned a “city of knowledge” as a central repository for the world’s information. They first called it Palais Mondial (“World Palace”) and later renamed it the Mundaneum.
The RBU, now part of The Mundaneum, steadily grew to 15 million index cards by 1934. The index cards were stored in custom-designed cabinets and indexed according to the Universal Decimal Classification.
The collection included files (letters, reports, newspaper articles, etc.) and images, contained in separate rooms, and integrated new media (storing bibliographic data on microfilm).
Otlet envisioned a copy of the RBU in each major city around the world, with the master copy held in Brussels. He even attempted to send full copies of the RBU to cities such as Paris, Washington, D.C. and Rio de Janeiro. However, copying and transportation difficulties meant those cities only a few hundred thousand cards.
In Traité de documentation 1934, Otlet laid out the “Radiated Library” vision, a novel scheme for remote access to data with minimal use of hard copy. A network of “electric telescopes” linked to the Mundaneum by telephone and the new technology of television. A user would phone in a query, and the answer in a book or other source would appear displayed on a personal screen, which could be split to show multiple results.
The network would support audio output and would enable data sharing and social interactions among its users.
Otlet died before the end of World War II, in 1944.
In 2015, on Otlet’s 147th Birthday, the Mundaneum, which lives on as a museum, partnered with Google to curate 9 exclusive online exhibitions to celebrate the life and contributions of one of our world’s innovators and prolific thinkers.
Even though his utopian vision of a city of knowledge and a world where information is free and accessible remains unrealized, Otlet’s breakthrough work is foundational for the likes of Wikipedia and Google and echoes still in every corner of the World Wide Web.