The Mundaneum - a Universal Catalogue of All the World's Knowledge

2 Conversations

If all the Guide were paper and written out in ink,

If my PC were not to be

How would I hyperlink?


In the year 1910, Mark Twain died under Halley's  Comet, and Jean Anouilh was born. Thomas Hunt Morgan used Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, to demonstrate that genes are located on chromosomes. King George V ascended the British throne, while Japan annexed Korea. Frankenstein hit the silver screen in its very first incarnation, and Enrico Caruso's performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York was the first live radio broadcast. The Portugese monarchy was overthrown, and the Union of South Africa established. Antoni Gaudí's Casa Milà in Barcelona and Adolf Loos' Haus Steiner in Vienna were completed, the ground-breaking London  art  exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists first featured Paul Cézanne, Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, and Gustav Mahler's  Symphony of a Thousand, Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto and Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 were premiered. Alice Stebbins Wells joined LAPD as world's first female  police officer, and Sweden's last execution was carried out. Johannes Diderik van der Waals received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in ThermodynamicsNeon lights were first shown to an amazed public, and the first electric washing machine was patented by Alva Fisher. The World's Fair was held in Brussels, and the Belgian  parliament rejected the socialist party's motion for general voting rights.

The early 20th Century saw an explosion of knowledge - books were being written, technological advances made, science was explaining a universe that laymen were trying to understand, and faster travel and communications meant that world news was suddenly important. With growing literacy rates and the first mass media reaching a wide audience, people had the chance and desire to learn. However, it was difficult to keep pace with the ever-increasing body of knowledge - while the 19th Century saw a total of 8 million published books, by the end of the 20th century, over one million individual manuscripts were being published every single year.

Documenting Knowledge

Enter two Belgian lawyers, Paul Otlet and Henri LaFontaine2. In 1910, they introduced the public to their 'universal catalogue of knowledge', and, more importantly, the means to organise it. Expanding on the system Melvil Dewey published in 1876, they introduced more precisely differentiated categories and symbols that show the relationships between categories and the language and type of document3. Even before their Universal Decimal Classification System was completed in 1904, Otlet and Lafontaine envisioned its use for creating an ultimate repository of documented knowledge, a perpetual encyclopaedia4 that would be

...very approximately, an annexe to the brain, the substratum of memory, an exterior mechanism and instrument of the mind, but so close to it and so fitted to its use that it would truly be a sort of appended, exodermic organ.
Paul Otlet, 1934

The Rise and Fall of the Mundaneum

This grand idea took physical shape in the form of thousands of wooden drawers stuffed with plain 3" by 5" index cards - up to 17 million of them at its peak - which held information and referenced countless further documents. The vast archive was first introduced to the public in 1910, when LaFontaine and Otlet installed a portion of it in the Parc du Cinquantenaire6. It was part of the Palais Mondial, which housed various institutions including the Union of International Associations, also founded by Otlet and LaFontaine.

In 1919, Otlet successfully badgered King Albert I into giving him more space by convincing him that the Mundaneum was a showpiece that would help Belgium's bid to hold the headquarters of the newly-formed League of Nations7. By 1924, the project had taken over 150 rooms, an entire wing of the Cinquantenaire, and was being used as a resource by researchers from all over the world. However, Brussels had lost the competition to host the League of Nations to Geneva, and the Belgian government forced Otlet to move out, as the space was needed for an exhibition by the rubber industry.

Unforunately, part of the collection was destroyed during the move, and more parts of it were lost as Otlet, unable to find a new sponsor, was compelled to relocate the Mundaneum into a succession of smaller spaces, including an old parking garage. In 1934 - ironically, the year in which Otlet's Traité de documentation8was published - financial troubles and mismanagment forced him to shut the Mundaneum down entirely, though the archives remained where they were until they were removed by the Nazis to make room for a propagandistic exhibition of Third Reich art.

More material was destroyed in this relocation, but Otlet managed to salvage parts of it and rehouse it in the Free University's abandoned anatomy building at Parc Leopold, where he continued to curate it until he died, in near obscurity, in 1944. A society of friends of the Mundaneum was later formed and continued to update the archives haphazardly, without any real guidance, using the anatomy theatre to hold orations in praise of Otlet and LaFontaine, but they, too, eventually abandoned it. Though Otlet had pleaded for his collection to be left intact, parts of it periodically fell victim to attempts to de-clutter the building, with 70 tons of material destroyed in 1970, 23 more tons in 1980, and six more container-fulls removed in 1993 before the Communauté Française, Belgium's francophone9 community, rescued the remnants and moved them to the new Mundaneum museum, where archivists are now working to organise the fragmented collection.

The Vision

Of course, the Mundaneum was much more than a glorified library card catalogue - it was intended as 'a machine for exploring time and space'10, a vast resource for enlightened scholars the world over. Paul Otlet and Henri LaFontaine had concluded that if knowledge is power, then making sure that everyone had free access to knowledge would result in a more even distribution of power, helping to further their cause of world peace. To this end, they founded the International Bureau of Bibliography11 or 'Brussels Institute' in 1895. LaFontaine continued his mission as a peace campaigner by promoting women's rights, helping to establish the World Court at The Hague, teaching international law, serving as a senator for the Belgian Socialist Party and as president of the International Peace Bureau. Otlet, meanwhile, concentrated on work that was no less important - he nursed modern information science through its infancy.

A Steampunk12 Internet

Besides the information contained in the documents themselves, Otlet was concerned with their context - their influence on and inspiration by other documents, the relationships between subjects, the social, historical, and political background of their respective authors, the language and style in which they were written, and their intended audience. He declared that no document could be fully understood by itself, but rather from the picture that emerged from seeing them as a whole, imagining them connected in a giant network which he called the réseau - web - of human knowledge. He wished to show 'the connections each document has with all other documents, forming from them what might be called the Universal Book.' and set about inventing a way of noting these relationships 'the links, the genealogy even, of ideas and objects, their relationships of dependence and subordination, of similarity and difference, find suitable representation....'13, incidentally coining the term 'links' for their associations. While not 'clickable', the index cards' annotations leading on to other documents are an early attempt at hypertext before the medium allowing it was fully developed.

Otlet was also one of the first to realise that information is independent of its medium, that changing the way in which a document is stored does not change the content. Because his archive required a vast storage space, he collaborated with an engineer, Robert Goldschmidt, to develop a machine for making and reading microfilm recordings, a pleasant side effect of which was that documents were easier to duplicate. He had no qualms in finding 'substitutes for books'. After all, 'The book is only a means to an end. Other means exist and as gradually they become more effective than the book, they are substituted for it.' In Otlet's system, the recording of knowledge did not have to stop with images or the written word - he recognised the importance of audio documents, and envisioned a future in which sense-perception-documents would play a role - records of scents, tastes, and haptic senses.

In order to turn the Mundaneum into a true 'living encyclopaedia', Otlet encouraged and expected user-generated content - documents being added as they were created, annotations14 written and new connections made. This led, of course, to an ever-expanding archive. Information was there, and it was organised into a precise and logical framework, but the sheer number of documents meant that it was still hard to find for researchers wishing to use it as a resource. This difficulty was overcome by the introduction of a sort of mail-order search engine. Written requests were processed by a trained and efficient staff familiar with the layout of the archive, and results returned for a fee of 27 Francs per 1,000 cards. This also helped with another problem - that of distance.

A Scholar's Work Station

A paper-based archive in a central location has obvious drawbacks. Besides the massive space needed to store the information, there is always the danger of misfiling, and the fact that only one copy of each document exists means that it must be laboriously copied by anyone wishing to use it - cutting and pasting would destroy the original, and only one person can read it at a time. Also, the more exotic the document, and the further afield its source, the harder it is to procure at all and the more outdated the information will be on its arrival. For example, the original archive only holds a single box of Australian newspapers.

Otlet identified these problems and worked to solve them - but the solution that seems obvious to us now, the computer, was still half a century15 away. The system he proposed, however, bore a remarkable functional resemblance to today's networked computers, though based on the cutting-edge technologies of the time - radio, television, and telephone. The ideal 'scholar's work station' was envisioned as

'...a machinery unaffected by distance which would combine at the same time radio, x-rays, cinema and microscopic photography. All the things of the universe and all those of man would be registered from afar as they were created. Thus the moving image of the world would be established -- its memory, its true duplicate. From afar anyone would be able to read any passage, expanded or limited to the desired subject, that would be projected onto his individual screen, thus in his armchair, anyone would be able to contemplate the whole of creation or particular parts of it...'

The work station, a system proposed in 1934 that bore more than passing resemblance to Vannevar Bush's 1945 Memex, was, in effect, a modern computer desktop that was electronic but not digital. The main body consisted of a large spoked wheel with various surfaces on which various projects could be deposited and saved in their current state - someone wishing to work on something different merely turned the wheel to cycle on to a free surface. A file cabinet holding various documents was installed and guided electronically so that it was always open and at the user's eye level.

Beside this work surface was an interface for connecting to the Mundaneum archive - the user could request information by telephone, and later, wireless telegraphy, and the document would be sent by téléaugraphie- a kind of telex system - or by téléphotographie, an 'electronic telescope' with which a facsimile of the document in question was transmitted to one of several television screens serving like browser windows. The entire system would be served by a single databank,

an immense edifice containing all the books and the information, together with all the resources of space needed to record and manage them, with all of its apparatus of catalogues, bibliographies and indexes, with all the information redistributed on cards, sheets and files, and with search and retrieval [literally: selection and combination] performed by an appropriately qualified permanent staff...

Otelet also proposed devices for recording audio annotations and reproducing sounds, smells, and other information, though the precise nature of these devices is not clear. In a way, this vision of the internet is more advanced than our current system, as it allows for the recording and transmission of more forms of data. Whether Paul Otlet would see the internet as an incarnation of the Mundaneum is by no means obvious. According to his biographer, W. Boyd Rayward16, Otlet might even be apalled at the internet for its lack of organisation and the unclassifiable 'cyberspace debris' cluttering the web.

The Utopia

Since the project was part of a plan for world peace, Otlet's vision did not stop at the mere scholarly archive. The Mundaneum, crowned by a 320m Tower of Progress was to form the hub of the Cité Mondiale. This Universal City was to be a scholarly Mecca or Jerusalem, comparable to the great Library of Alexandria. Besides the 'grand institutions of intellectual work' - universities, museums, and libraries - it was to house international organisations, including the headquarters of some future society of all nations.

The famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was fascinated by this idea, and together with Norwegian sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen and a team of several dozen architects, set about designing the utopian city. Several sites were proposed - including the Hague in the Netherlands, Tervuren17, Belgium, and Lakewood, New Jersey, USA, location of one of the world's largest Yeshivas18. Needless to say, the city was never built.

The Mundaneum Today

Much of what remains of the Mundaneum can now be visited at the Centre d’archives de la Communauté Française, located in a converted Art Deco factory building in Mons, Belgium. The museum is open to the public from noon to six every day except Mondays and holidays19. It offers guided tours for groups of ten or more, and is wheelchair accessible. Besides what remains of the Mundaneum, it houses the Musée International de la Presse20, the Répertoire Iconographique Universel21, the Répertoire Universel de Documentation22, papers and writings by Henri La Fontaine and Paul Otlet, the archives of the Amis du Palais Mondial23, and collections of feminist, socialist, and anarchist writings, as well as a variety of temporary exhibits. The collection remains chaotic, but has been arranged into an artful exhibition that is interesting even to the layman. There is a reading room open to the public, with a 'Mundaweb' area for browsing and learning more about the internet. If you wish to experience the real Mundaneum feeling while doing research, you can fill in an online form and the staff will try to locate any pertinent documents for you. However, six kilometres of shelving are still occupied by unsorted boxes, and archivists say it could take over one hundred years to scan all the documents - and finally make them available online, for all to see.

1 This chaotic paragraph is respectfully dedicated to Paul Otlet, pioneer of modern information science.2An eventual Nobel Prize for Peace laureate.3Documents, in this case, can be nearly anything - books, magazines, film, statues, paintings, audio recordings, maps, or historical or natural artifacts, to name a few.4A vision shared by such people as HG Wells, who wrote his 'World Brain' essays in 1938, or Jorge Luis Borges, whose fictional 'Library of Babel' is described as containing 'all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols … the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.'55Which, in turn, neatly ties in with Terry Pratchett's concept of 'L-Space', which even contains books that haven't been written yet.6The 'Jubilee Park' in Brussels, holding a victory arch which was comissioned for the 50th anniversary of Belgium's independence in 1880, but not actually finished until 1905, just in time for the 75th anniversary celebrations. It was the site of the 1880 World's Fair, but only the central glass halls remain from this time - the smaller pavillions were later replaced with larger halls, which now hold a museum. 7An international organisation resulting from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War.8A book on networked information structures, considered Otlet's masterpiece. 9French-speaking.10Otlet, 1903.11Later changed to the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID). The organisation was dissolved in 2002.12Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative science fiction, usually set in Victorian England, that describes a world in which advanced, but old-fashioned technology is used instead of today's electrical and digital machines - analogue computers and steam-powered robots, fast overland travel through dirigibles, or fanciful inventions such as wooden rockets and moon bases. It attempts to recapture the 'Scientific Romance' of authors like Jules Verne. The aesthetics of Steampunk run heavily toward rosewood, brass, stained glass, and cast iron. Good examples of Steampunk include the locomotive at the end of 'Back To The Future III' and depictions of Frankenstein's workshop. Steampunk is best viewed through nostalgia-coloured glasses.13Otlet and La Fontaine, 1895.14Without the annotations changing the original document, which, interestingly, makes the Mundaneum system more like the Guide than like Wikipedia. 15Konrad Zuse, the inventor of the first programmable computer, was only born in 1910, the year when the Mundaneum was first presented. The idea that computers could be used for word processing rather than simple calculation of numbers and the concept of networking did not become feasible until the late 1960s.16 Without whose translations of Paul Otlet's work this entry could not be nearly so extensive. Thank you, Mr. Rayward.17A town just east of Brussels that had been a contender for the seat of the League of Nations.18An Orthodox Jewish institution for Torah and Talmud study.19It is closed during the week of the Ducasse de Mons, an annual procession and festival that has been held in Mons since the 14th century. The date varies, but it is always on Trinity Sunday, 57 days after Easter.20International Press Museum.21The Universal Iconographic Directory, consisting of postcards, photographs, posters, glass plates, and slides.22Universal Directory of Documents.23Friends of the Palais Mondial (World's Palace).

Bookmark on your Personal Space



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Written and Edited by


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more