Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868–1944) and Hypertext

Rayward, W. Boyd
Journal of the American Society for Information Science

The work of the Belgian internationalist and documentalist, Paul Otlet (1868?1944), and his colleagues in Brussels, forms an important and neglected part of the history of information science. They developed a complex of organizations that are similar in important respects functionally to contemporary hypertext7sol;hypermedia systems. These organizations effectively provided for the integration of bibliographic, image, and textual databases. Chunks of text on cards or separate sheets were created according to ?the monographic principle? and their physical organization managed by the Universal Decimal Classification, created by the Belgians from Melvil Dewey's Decimal Classification. This article, discusses Otlet's concept of the Office of Documentation and, as examples of an approach to actual hypertext systems, several special Offices of Documentation set up in the International Office of Bibliography. In his Traité de Documentation of 1934, one of the first systematic treatises on what today we would call information science, Otlet speculated imaginatively about telecommunications, text-voice conversion, and what is needed in computer workstations, though of course he does not use this terminology. By assessing how the intellectual paradigm of nineteenth century positivism shaped Otlet's thinking, this study suggests how, despite its apparent contemporaneity, what he proposed was in fact conceptually different from the hypertext systems that have been developed or speculated about today. Such as analysis paradoxically also suggests the irony that a ?deconstructionist? reading of accounts of these systems might find embedded in them the positivist approach to knowledge that the system designers would seem on the face of it explicitly to have repudiated. ? 1994 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.