the mundaneum


ON THE NIGHT OF JUNE 1, 1934, a Belgian information scientist named Paul Otlet sat in silent, peaceful protest outside the locked doors of a government building in Brussels from which he had just been evicted. Inside was his life’s work: a vast archive of more than twelve million bibliographic three-by-five-inch index cards, which attempted to catalog and cross-reference the relationships among all the world’s published information. For Otlet, the archive was at the center of a plan to universalize human knowledge. He called it the Mundaneum, and he believed it would usher in a new era of peace and progress. The Belgian government, however, had come to view Otlet and his fine mess of papers, dusty boxes, and customized filing cabinets as a financial and political nuisance. Thirteen years earlier, Otlet’s Mundaneum—then called the Palais Mondial—had occupied 150 gleaming rooms in the Palais du Cinquatenaire in Brussels. Thousands of visitors a day filed through, marveling at the seven-foot-high card-catalog cabinets lining the walls of an eighty-foot-long room. Otlet and other scholars delivered lectures on topics such as “The Problems of Language” and “The Necessity for Dental Hygiene” in a thousand-seat auditorium. Scores of workers operated the Mundaneum’s search service, which employed the card catalog to answer questions from the public.

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