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Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  156 ratings  ·  31 reviews
The dream of universal knowledge hardly started with the digital age. From the archives of Sumeria to the Library of Alexandria, humanity has long wrestled with information overload and management of intellectual output. Revived during the Renaissance and picking up pace in the Enlightenment, the dream grew and by the late nineteenth century was embraced by a number of vis ...more
Hardcover, 350 pages
Published June 4th 2014 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published January 1st 2014)
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3.76  · 
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I received an Advance Reader's Copy of this book on Netgalley.

I thought myself decently well-versed in the history of library science until I read this book, when I realized I was only decently well-versed in the history of American library science. It was very interesting to read about what was happening on the other side of the pond while Dewey was creating the American Library Association and Andrew Carnegie was putting a public library in every city that wanted one. I knew nothing about Pau
Mar 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
While much has been written about the birth of the Information Age in general, and the genesis and growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular, the histories tend to center on the contributions of English-speakers working in and around the field of computer science. However, in his latest book Alex Wright attempts to correct, or rather expand upon, the historical record, by shining a light on the little-known figure of Paul Otlet, an early twentieth-century Belgian cataloger whos ...more
Ameya Warde
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nf-history
This book was SO INTERESTING! I had never heard of Paul Otlet, and didn't know anything at all about the history of Library Science before picking this up, but I'm so glad I did. I wish I had remembered to review this right after I finished it so I could have more intelligent things to say about it, but alas. It's 2 months later, and I don't remember enough to write a good review, but I do know that this book was super interesting and pleasing to my extremely nerdy self. :)
Stefi Booktopolis
Nov 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Абсолютно задължителна.
Jen Hirt
If the producers of "Drunk History" ever beg me to contribute, I'll do the story of Belgian intellectual and organizational dictator Paul Otlet (1868-1944), who set out with his index cards and his mania in a lifelong attempt to catalog every topic known to humans. He drew schematics for linked devices via which he would personally educate all of humanity, devices that we today recognize immediately as THE INTERNET. Only poor Otlet was imagining the Internet long before anything like it existed. ...more
May 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Kindle version is already available. Fascinating story of social scientist Otlet's attempt to gather all the world's information in one place. Well-written and compelling narrative brings Otlet, his world, and his struggles to life.
Jul 21, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book tries very hard to turn Paul Otlet into one of the visionaries of the Information Age, and I think that the link is somewhat strained. Otlet, born in Belgium ca. 1863, seems to have been one of those ambitious, but essentially philanthropic and optimist (or "positivist") cranks of the late Victorian age, closer to Darwin than to Freud. His original ambition was to collect, classify and organize all of the world's books into a huge bibliography, but soon he left that dream behind to hav ...more
John Ohno
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
A lucid account of an era in information technology when the dewey decimal system was still in flux and the state of the art was index cards & microfilm, bookended by a brief overview of early rennaisance encyclopedic cataloguing systems on one side & a brief overview of the history of hypertext on the other, all tied together by Paul Otlet, a forgotten figure at the nexus of a social network that includes a nobel peace prize winner, Henry James, Le Corbusier, Woodrow Wilson, W. E. B. Du ...more
Caolan McMahon
Apr 27, 2019 rated it liked it
He certainly had some over-reaching utopian ideas and pursued them doggedly!

Unfortunately, the book was light on technical detail and, I felt, failed to relate to him personally. The author prefers instead to compare Otlet to his contemporaries, which paints a fascinating picture of the world at the time but leaves Otlet a vacuum in the centre, and compares his ideas to the modern-day internet, which stretches the connection a little thin.

I'd never heard of Paul Otlet before picking up this boo
Sunkuru Sachin Kumar
Jul 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
A good work with the biography of the great Paul Otlet with the essence of related history to information age.

After reading the book I realized the amount of work and dedications by our great predecessors for the things now the new generation like us just take in account. Starting from the arrangement of books in library to visualizing the blurred form of the modern internet is what makes people in the book great. We are experiencing not so different yet achievable state of what Paul Otlet has
Alex Wright's recent book on Paul Otlet does a great job of weaving a narrative that includes a broad selection of Information Technology/Information Science History. I thoroughly enjoyed the style of the book and the audible narration struck the right tone. This book is an excellent guide to the connections between present day technologies and debates and those that have come before. If you're an Aubible member, well work the purchase!
originally published on BookPeople's blog.

Alex Wright channels his inner James Gleick here and offers us a compelling biography, not only of an important forerunner to information science, but a brief biography of the birth of the Web and information science itself.

In my years in library school, I never even heard of Paul Otlet, yet he was a man who envisioned a network of organized information similar to what information scientists are working on to this day. Otlet was an idealist who subscribe
Sep 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is total nerd-heaven if you are interested in information science and the study of resource management, documentary science and taxonomy, and get a better grip on how mankind has gotten to where we are in the Information Age. Paul Otlet has an incredible story and got a lot of things right, even though he was a staunch liberal, socialist, and positivist.

At his core he saw the fundamental truth that our culture is totally cut off from. He saw that there was an objective truth out there and
Dani Shuping
Jul 12, 2014 rated it liked it
ARC provided by NetGalley

Since the dawn of time humanity has long wanted to have access to all knowledge across the lands. The Library of Alexandria was an early attempt and it appeared again during the Renaissance and again and again until the late nineteenth century when a number of people finally felt that this monumental task was within their reach. One such person was librarian Paul Otlet. Working from the simple card catalog Paul connected his native Belgium to the world beyond. Otlet crea
Jul 14, 2014 rated it liked it
If a crackpot comes up with a crackpot theory that somehow gets funding, but not enough funding to really be realized, but then turns out to be the basis for the biggest technological development of the subsequent two generations, does it make a sound?

Apparently, it does. Paul Otlet is fascinating, but Alex Wright's discussion is turgid, and often rambling, and is neither biography (since it fails to discuss much of his life in any meaningful sense) nor technical exegesis (since one is left wond
Gabriel Avocado
Nov 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Prior to reading this book, I had no idea how important Otlet was. Wright does a great job of providing enough historical and political contexts, not only during Otlet's life but in the present day. The author walks the reader through every step of the development of Otlet's wildest schemes and puts them in proper contexts. Not only that, I found Wright to be very good at making connections between information scientists like librarians and archivists and with computer scientists, a connection I ...more
Dec 08, 2015 rated it liked it
I'll have to write a better review later... Interesting book about an interesting guy, but definitely loses steam at 55% (I read it on my phone kindle app so no idea what page that translates to). Picks up again briefly from 62-64% or so. It pretty abruptly leaves Otlet's story to talk generally about the development of the web, and while I see how that's related, it feels unstructured and a little out of place next to the more biographical stuff. The author does tie it together later, but I fou ...more
Larry Hinman
I knew a few things about Otlet before I began this book, but Wright's book is a gem that sheds light on a little-known figure who foresaw much of today's World Wide Web, but did so with the mechanical means available at the time (prior to the outbreak of WWII). Outlet's work was part of a larger vision, both epistemological and political: to construct a universal catalogue of knowledge that would be the complement of a universal government (the League of Nations). It's a fascinating study, and ...more
Trevor McGuire
Jan 20, 2016 rated it it was ok
I felt the subtitle was a bit misleading. This book began like a biography of a tenacious young librarian, but that biography petered out and it became a much drier history of the internet. It would turn out that our protagonist was really just a small cog in a large machine; if he didn't do what he did, someone else would have filled the gap. In short, there were probably many characters in this history that could have been chosen to play the role that Otlet played in this book. I recommend the ...more
Sep 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: e-books
As a librarian, I found this book to be extremely interesting. Otlet's hard work has set the stage for future information professionals, and certainly he is responsible for the success of research performed in the early 20th century, due to his work cataloging the worlds knowledge. I found that the book was anything but boring- and I would recommend this to anyone interested in education, library science, history and Archival studies. I particularly recommend it to all MLIS students.
Jimmy In
A very interesting book about a Belgian librarian who designed a system for cataloging all the information in the world, on index cards. He also planned a museum that would hold his card catalogs and other cultural artifacts and a "world city" based on his desire for world peace and brotherhood. He was a "positivist" and a disciple of Auguste Comte. In some ways his ideas for information storage and retrieval presaged an analog version of the World Wide Web.
Sabra Kurth
Premature Vision

Paul Otlet, one of many Fathers of the Internet" worked to establish a global means of classifying and sharing the world's knowledge. He was a man ahead of his time condemned to sing index cards and microfilm rather than bytes and dependent on meagre government handouts rather than advertising dollars. His story is an interesting prequel to the Internet Age.
Chris Ingram
Jun 25, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Enjoyable account of an early 20th century visionary whose thoughts about organizing information and making it available to humankind are oddly prescient, considering that they predate computers and the Internet by half a century or more. It is also a tragic story - the internationalist visions of the early
1900s falling by the wayside, casualties of two world wars.
Victoria Olsen
Jul 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Well researched and well written-- the book traces the impact of Paul Otlet, bibliographer and inventor, on the intellectual history of the internet. An impressive work that draws on many different fields and connects a lot of dots.
Jan 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting biography of a visionary man who saw how the world could be connected by information 100 years before the Internet. Good read.
Sep 16, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, own, ia
So much on the politics of the various international organizations involved in creating information science, not as much on the issues and methods involved. I got bored :/
Michael Rhode
Jun 25, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: library
Interesting, but a bit padded in parts. I'm very sympathetic to the basic issue of linking information and making it available though.
May 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
At some point near the end he talks about Wikipedia and how it does and doesn't make Otlet's vision reality and I was expecting him to mention Wikidata any second... But no... :D
Michael Carini
Aug 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The fundamental research is sound but the author's commentary is useless and often wrong.
Forrest Link
Feb 13, 2015 rated it liked it
An interesting account of the life and obsessions of a naive visionary whose ideas predated available technologies. Three stars because the book feels occasionally padded and ill-organized.
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Alex Wright is a Brooklyn-based writer, researcher, and designer whose most recent book is Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. His first book Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "a penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on our information age and its historical roots."

Alex's writing has appeared in The Atla