Really Old Bits #3: "Otlet's WWW"

From: Derek Robinson (
Date: Fri Apr 20 2001 - 03:02:15 PDT

[From <> "Emanuel
Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, And Vannevar Bush's Memex",
Michael Buckland]


The most thorough treatment of information retrieval in that period was Paul Otlet's Traité de documentation (1934). Otlet's idiosyncratic text is quite forward-looking. In television he recognizes the potential for using telecommunications for remote access to documents:

"Soon television will be a problem that has been essentially solved, as it already is in theory: the image is reproduced at a distance without a wire. One can imagine the electric telescope, permitting one to read at home, `tele-reading' the books set out in the reading rooms of the great libraries, at the pages requested in advance." (p. 238. Transl. MKB).

Later he enumerates inventions, such as machine translation, that are needed for information retrieval and information processing. After stressing the importance of telecommunications and the need for technical standards, Otlet provides a concise outline of a personal information system, including an anticipation of hypertext:

"We should have a complex of associated machines which would achieve the following operations simultaneously or sequentially:

1. Conversion of sound into text;

2. Copying that text as many times as is useful;

3. Setting up documents in such a way that each datum has its own identity and its relationships with all the others in the group and to which it can be re-united as needed;

4. Assignment of a classification code to each datum; [division of the document into parts, one for each datum, and] rearrangement of the parts of the document to correspond with the classification codes;

5. Automatic classification and storage of these documents; 6. Automatic retrieval of these documents for consultation and for delivery either for inspection or to a machine for making additional notes;

7. Mechanized manipulation at will of all the recorded data in order to derive new combinations of facts, new relationships between ideas, new operations using symbols.

"The machinery which would achieve these seven requirement would be a veritable mechanical and collective brain." (p. 391. Transl. MKB)


Still workin' on it ...

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