• 1868 August 23
    (b.) -
    1944 December 10


An author, entrepreneur, visionary, lawyer and peace activist; he is one of several people who have been considered the father of information science, a field he called "documentation". He created the Universal Decimal Classification, one of the most prominent examples of faceted classification. He was responsible for the widespread adoption in Europe of the standard American 3x5 inch index card used until recently in most library catalogs around the world (by now largely displaced by the advent of online public access catalogs (OPAC)). He wrote numerous essays on how to collect and organize the world's knowledge, culminating in two books, the Trait? de documentation.(1934) and Monde: Essai d'universalisme. (1935). Born in Brussels, Belgium, his father kept him out of school, hiring tutors instead, until he was 11, believing that classrooms were a stifling environment. As a child, he had few friends, and played regularly only with his younger brother Maurice. He soon developed a love of reading and books. His high school studies were at the prestigious Coll?ge Saint-Michel in Brussels and he was educated at the Catholic University of Leuven and at the Universit? Libre de Bruxelles, where he earned a law degree on 15 July 1890 and then clerked with famed lawyer Edmond Picard. He soon became dissatisfied with his legal career, and began to take an interest in bibliography. His first published work on the subject was the essay "Something about bibliography", written in 1892. In it he expressed the belief that books were an inadequate way to store information, because the arrangement of facts contained within them was an arbitrary decision on the part of the author, making individual facts difficult to locate. A better storage system, he wrote in his essay, would be cards containing individual "chunks" of information that would allow "all the manipulations of classification and continuous interfiling." In addition would be needed "a very detailed synoptic outline of knowledge" that could allow classification of all of these chunks of data. In 1891, he met Henri La Fontaine, a fellow lawyer with shared interests in bibliography and international relations, and the two became good friends. They were commissioned in 1892 by Belgium's Societ? des Sciences sociales et politiques (Society of social and political sciences) to create bibliographies for various of the social sciences; they spent three years doing this. In 1895, they discovered the Dewey Decimal Classification, a library classification system that had been invented in 1876. They decided to try to expand this system to cover the classification of facts that he had previously imagined. They wrote to the system's creator, Melvil Dewey, asking for permission to modify his system in this way; he agreed, so long as their system was not translated into English. They began work on this expansion soon afterwards. He founded the Institut International de Bibliographie (IIB) in 1895, later renamed as (in English) the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID). In 1895, he and La Fontaine also began the creation of a collection of index cards, meant to catalog facts, that came to be known as the "Repertoire Bibliographique Universel" (RBU), or the "Universal Bibliographic Repertory". By the end of 1895 it had grown to 400,000 entries; later it would reach a height of over 15 million. In 1896, he set up a fee-based service to answer questions by mail, by sending the requesters copies of the relevant index cards for each query; scholar Alex Wright has referred to the service as an "analog search engine". By 1912, this service responded to over 1,500 queries a year. He envisioned a copy of the RBU in each major city around the world, with Brussels holding the master copy. At various times between 1900 and 1914, attempts were made to send full copies of the RBU to cities such as Paris, Washington, D.C. and Rio de Janeiro; however, difficulties in copying and transportation meant that no city received more than a few hundred thousand cards. In 1904, he and La Fontaine began to publish their classification scheme, which they termed the Universal Decimal Classification. They completed this initial publication in 1907. The system defines not only detailed subject classifications, but also an algebraic notation for referring to the intersection of several subjects; for example, the notation "31:[622+669](485)" refers to the statistics of mining and metallurgy in Sweden. The UDC is an example of an analytico-synthetic classification, i.e. it permits the linking of one concept to another. Although some have described it as faceted, it is not, though there are some faceted elements in it. A truly faceted classification consists solely of simple concepts; there are many compound concepts listed in the UDC. It is still used by many libraries and bibliographic services outside the English-speaking world, and in some non-traditional contexts such as the BBC Archives. In 1910, he and La Fontaine first envisioned a "city of knowledge", which he originally named the "Palais Mondial" ("World Palace"), that would serve as a central repository for the world's information. In 1919, soon after the end of World War I, they convinced the government of Belgium to give them the space and funding for this project, arguing that it would help Belgium bolster its bid to house the League of Nations headquarters. The Union of International Associations, which he had founded in 1907 with Henri La Fontaine, later led to the development of both the League of Nations and the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, which was later merged into UNESCO. They were given space in the left wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire, a government building in Brussels. They then hired staff to help add to their Universal Bibliographic Repertory. He renamed the Palais Mondial to the Mundaneum in 1924. The RBU steadily grew to 13 million index cards in 1927; by its final year - 1934, it had reached over 15 million. He envisioned a new kind of scholar?s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3?5 index cards. This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between one another, ?the connections each [document] has with all other [documents], forming from them what might be called the Universal Book.? He imagined a day when users would access the database from great distances by means of an ?electric telescope? connected through a telephone line, retrieving a facsimile image to be projected remotely on a flat screen. At that time, this notion of networked documents was still so novel that no one had a word to describe these relationships, until he invented one: ?links.? He envisioned the whole endeavor as a great ?r?seau??web?of human knowledge. Meanwhile, index cards were stored in custom-designed cabinets, and indexed according to the Universal Decimal Classification. The collection also grew to include files (including letters, reports, newspaper articles, etc.) and images, contained in separate rooms; the index cards were meant to catalog all of these as well. The Mundaneum eventually contained 100,000 files and millions of images. He integrated new media, as they were invented, into his vision of the networked knowledge-base of the future. In the early 1900s, he worked with engineer Robert Goldschmidt on storing bibliographic data on microfilm (then known as "micro-photography"). These experiments continued into the 1920s, and by the late 1920s he attempted along with colleagues to create an encyclopedia printed entirely on microfilm, known as the Encyclopaedia Microphotica Mundaneum, which was housed in the Mundaneum. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote about radio and television as other forms of conveying information, writing in the 1934 Trait? de documentation that "one after another, marvelous inventions have immensely extended the possibilities of documentation." In the same book, he predicted that media that would convey feel, taste and smell would also eventually be invented, and that an ideal information-conveyance system should be able to handle all of what he called "sense-perception documents". In 1934, the Belgian government cut off the project?s funding for the second time; the offices were closed and the collection remained untouched within those offices, until 1940, when Germany invaded Belgium. Requisitioning the Mundaneum's quarters to hold a collection of Third Reich art and destroying substantial amounts of its collections in the process, the Germans forced him and his colleagues to find a new home for the Mundaneum. In a large but decrepit building in Leopold Park they reconstituted the Mundaneum as best as they could, and there it remained until it was forced to move again in 1972, well after his death in 1944, soon before the end of World War II. Beginning in the 1980s; and especially after the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, new interest arose in his speculations and theories about the organization of knowledge, the use of information technologies, and globalization. His 1934 masterpiece, the Trait? de documentation, was reprinted in 1989 by the Centre de Lecture publique de la Communaut? fran?aise in Belgium. (Neither the Trait? nor its companion work, "Monde" (World) has been translated into English so far.) In 1990 Professor W. Boyd Rayward published an English translation of some of his writings. His writings have sometimes been called prescient of the current World Wide Web. His vision of a great network of knowledge was centered on documents and included the notions of hyperlinks, search engines, remote access, and social networks?although these notions were described by different names.
  • Date of Birth:

    1868 August 23
  • Date of Death:

    1944 December 10
  • Gender:

  • Noted For:

    Considered to be one of the fathers of information science, his writings having sometimes been called prescient of the current World Wide Web
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