A Limited Company of Useful Knowledge :
Paul Otlet, the International Institute of Bibliography and the Limits of Documentalism

At the moment there is only one thing I must do; that is to gather together my material of all kinds, and connect it with everything else I have done up until now. I do not have enough yet to do anything much. I must wait… 1

When Paul Otlet penned those words into his diary in 1886, he was but 18 years old, still the troubled and melancholy boy of a comfortable bourgeois family in Brussels. At the time he would spend hours alone, withdrawn from his family and few friends as he endlessly shuffled, categorized and inter-related everything he wrote and read in the course of his legal studies. The son of a well connected senator and financier, Paul came from two converging families which had been dominated by public administrators and lawyers for generations.

At age 14, young Paul and his brother Maurice were drawing up the statutes to their imaginary firm, the 'Limited Company of Useful Knowledge.' By age 20, Paul felt that his path in life must be compelled by 'the ultimate morality to do good', but he wrote in his diaries of deep uncertainty as to whether science or religion were the best route to this end. His education at the Jesuit College Saint Michel seemed to hang heavy over him, and for a time he even considered a life in the Church.

So, still wrestling with these questions, as his father's businesses abroad began to fail, Paul set out to spend a summer in Paris. 'The city where the world comes to take notes', as he described the City of Lights in his notebook. It was in the midst of this metropolitan moment in 1889 where, as Paris was swept up by the art of the Symbolists and the Eiffel Tower was miraculously finished, Paul Otlet realized his passion was first and foremost examining how 'ideas grow and develop'. 2

These strange perturbations in a young man might barely seem noteworthy to most readers, simply the melodrama and indecisiveness of an introvert twenty-something. Our own period might never have known of this distant, internalized struggle had it not been for two related eventualities. First, Otlet kept a diary religiously from ages 11 to 27, comprising 28 volumes of nearly 1400 pages. Secondly, we still have those documents, along with much else which testifies to Otlet's life, on account of his meticulous organization. They still reside in the archives of Brussels' Palais, where the organizations which he founded were housed until his death in 1938.

Much of what Otlet had to say, about the organization and sharing of knowledge, has finally come to pass. We have only now, a century later, reached the technological level which Otlet hoped to establish all his life, both in theory through his writings (Un peu de bibliographie 1892 or Traité de Documentation 1934) and in practice though the bibliographic standards he developed. In many ways, the story of Otlet's drive to establish an Internationalist approach to scientific knowledge is a tragic one.

Confined by the technological limitations of his age, and caught in the turmoil of the two World Wars, his International Institute of Bibliography seems an idiosyncratic impossibility. His idea of a massive encyclopedic database, the Universal Bibliographic Repertory, which would compile all the written knowledge of the world could be considered a Quixotic endeavor at best. By 1934, the contents of the Repertory had swelled to over 17 million bibliographic entries, abstracts, excerpts, subject files and images. Some 1500 research requests were poring into the International Office of Bibliography every year. All this, even with the entire information infrastructure of the organization and its holding built on 3'×5' cards.

The desire to compile and classify the knowledge of mankind on a massive scale was, it should be said, not new even in Otlet's time. This Alexandrine 'compulsion' carrying over from Antiquity into the medieval era with the compilation of varied Summa or other early Encyclopedia. Then there is the Enlightenment tradition, where exactly two centuries before Otlet's birth Gottfried Leibniz had just taken a position as the court librarian for a French duke. Upon arriving at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Leibniz was in awe at the mass of printed material and the useful knowledge it might contain, if only he knew where to begin. He then proposed, in his A New Method of Learning (1668), the publication of abstracts of all newly-published works, on an international basis, with the co-operation of the Scientific Societies which were beginning to appear in all Europe's major centers. Perhaps the best statement of Otlet's initial vision of how this network of human knowledge would take shape comes in one of his earliest statements on the subject, with its stated aims being,

to examine whether facts once stated and consigned to publications (becoming in this way part of science), it would be possible by means of some special classification, to group them into laws. How could one give to the social sciences the positive and documentary character of the natural sciences? How could all the activities of individuals be made to contribute to the elaboration of a definite synthesis, gradually establishing from facts and results, not from the speculation of a single thinker, but from the research of all.3

This fragment underscores clearly the contemporary connection many information scientists feel with Otlet and his project, which he came to call Documentalism, insofar as it not only sought to share existing knowledge but promised, in its structured approach, to offer the possibility of closing the gap between the methodologies of the natural and social sciences. The recent innovations of mechanized sorting of punched cards, Dewey Decimal Classification, and the vertical file all seemed to hold great possibility if properly and systematically applied.

Over the course of the coming years, as the International Institute of Bibliography took shape and developed, all these technologies would enable Otlet and his movement to fine-tune an elaborate system of inter-relating documents and facts of all kinds. These data structuring standards would soon spread by way of the group's transnational membership.

After his sojourn in Paris, he returned to Brussels and became associated with Henri La Fontaine, a prominent lawyer and progressive politician. La Fontaine was enmeshed in the shaping of guidelines for international arbitration, and it was through the meeting of these two individuals that the idea of a trans-national organization devoted to intellectual cooperation first began to take shape. After much discussion the two began to reach a common ground of understanding, namely that the current state of affairs in research and publishing was unsatisfactory, that too much effort was being needlessly duplicated, and that a vast well of scientific knowledge in all disciplines would be best put to use for all mankind if it could be collated and synthesized through one central agency. That agency was founded, through the funding and connections of both men, in 1884, as L'Office Internationale de Bibliographie. In the words of La Fontaine, upon its founding,

it is no less than a question of creating a world depot where all human ideas can be automatically stored in order to be spread afterwards among people with a minimum of effort and a maximum of effectiveness…a central institute where all those who hope to collaborate in the progress of humanity will be able, immediately and mechanically, to obtain the most detailed and complete information…an international university where those wishing to devote themselves to advanced study can find all the documents and books they might want. 4

These are heady words for the time: Denis Diderot was driven from France by the Royal Authorities for proposing much the same idea just a century before hand, but by this point the public library movement was well underway throughout the Western world and notions of public access to education had shifted radically. While it is there is an element of centralized, hierarchical thinking in the strategy of Otlet and La Fontaine, they were largely moving for the establishment of the IIB (International Institute of Bibliography) as a means of progressive and positive change. They wanted to open and encourage access, to fan the flames of scientific and political debate, by helping accelerate the exchange of ideas.

The key to this acceleration (which in their Positivist confidence in Progress they could only presume would lead to 'good') was the new technology put at their disposal. Again, this vast collated assembly of indexes, dictionaries, periodicals, catalogues, guides, fragments, abstracts, statistics and quotes is best described in the language of Otlet, as outlined in a pamphlet issued at the opening of the IIB:

Because the methods of observation and cooperation have produced unceasing progress and the internationalization of science has enlarged the field of action…rigorously scientific classification has become necessary…this will be the natural result of studies carried at the same time throughout the whole world by thousands of thinkers and investigators. This, individual work will more and more appear as chapters, as paragraphs, nay even single lines in the Great Book…bibliography is only the table of content of this book, the analytical index elaborated day by day.5

While these were effective steps in the on-going activities of the OIB (Office of International Bibliography) through the 1890s, the goals of the project quickly began to cross over these straightforward parameters. On March 24, 1895, Otlet wrote to Melvil Dewey to seek advise on how his vision might use decimal classification as its 'backbone': "I have made the acquaintance of your work", he wrote, "a masterpiece of ingenuity…could we proceed to a French translation and on what terms?"6

Permission soon granted by Dewey and the IIB began a forceful push to implement the system throughout its new operations as well as encourage the utilization of DDC in other organizations throughout Europe. To this end, letters were written, essays published, lectures given and conferences attended at a furious pace. Otlet and La Fontaine were afraid other competing classifications schemes, proposed by the Americans, French or British might gain ground if they did not act quickly. The Royal Society of London, for example, had already embarked on their own exhaustive International Catalogue of Scientific Publications. Worse yet, besides having a head start on the IIB, they were proposing their own unique subject approach!7

In September 1895, the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took it upon themselves to announce to 43 nations the creation of the OIB and the new project of international knowledge accumulation and indexing which they would be undertaking. The same letter, sent to various countries throughout the world, asked for the cooperation of institutions and governments on this universally-beneficial project and for each to show support by furnishing Otlet and his group with copies of any relevant bibliographical materials and catalogues which might aid them. The response from many countries was very positive, and all manner of documentation began to pour into the OIB, both from abroad and all levels of administration in Belgium, so that from the beginning to the end of the year the Universal Bibliographic Repertory (UBR) doubled in size, reaching 400,000 items.

The notable exception to the international enthusiasm was from the French 8 who summarily declared the very idea just short of imbecilic, on account of the limit expertise available to the staff of the Office and the highly technical nature of the material which they would be confronted with. One damning article, by noted bibliographer Henri Stein, frowned skeptically upon the grand abstracting plan: 'One must understand and read and criticize. True bibliography should be made deliberately by men knowledgeable in the matter dealt with…and able to give a useful opinion on the manner in which is had been treated.'9

That such a practical consideration would come from a French scholar is some indication that many must have felt Otlet's plan to be a grandiose dream. For not only was it the stated intention of the OIB to index, catalogue and abstract the printed literature of the world, but even as the breadth of the collection began expanded rapidly 10 , Otlet explicitly hoped for even greater depth in the coverage of the UBR records. In some ways it was the monumental, centralized vision of the task which both damned it as a theory in the mind's of many (like French bibliophile Georges Bataille, who felt it stank of totalitarian control), as well as in practice.

His vision of the collection, which began to grow exponentially after the early 1900s, was that it would in fact become far more than just a catalogue or finding aid. Otlet instead envisioned the UBR would in many ways replace the books and articles which would be used to built it, that in fact the records would be detailed enough to stand on their own. Otlet wrote as much as the Office began to add more detailed elements to the already massive card catalogue. These card supplements included the Universal Iconographic Repertory (est. 1906) which quickly grew to ¼ million items inter-filed into the larger collection by subject and artist (as well as being archived by accession date) and the Encyclopedic Repertory of Dossiers, est. 1907, by 1914 comprising close to one million items sorted into over 10,000 subject files.

The ERD files were of particular significance, because they distinctly mark out the point at which Otlet extended the more traditional elements of cataloguing, indexing and abstracting, to actually culling fragments and facts from the books and other materials themselves, so that records which began as surrogates were actually transformed in information 'containers' in and of themselves. From his point of view, the book was a medium whose time was outlived, restricted as it was to a troublesomely fixed form, difficult to amend or elaborate upon as time passed, and cumbersome in its authorial construction.

To Otlet, questions even of authorship or reader enjoyment seemed to fall by the wayside as he conceived of his great Repertory as a sort of knowledge refinery, distilling away all the dross and leaving only the vital jewels of truth. He wrote in 1914 with La Fontaine, '…all writings ought to be reduced by…disintegration and readjustment into files, each conceived as chapters and paragraphs of a single universal book…such an encyclopedia will be a monument to the glory of human thought.'11

By 1914 the UBR had accumulated over nine million entries. As the OIB played an increasing role in European research 12 , Otlet and La Fontaine's ambitions for the collection and their organization grew. Numerous international leagues and societies headquartered in Brussels had even donated their library collections to the OIB, 300,000 titles to supplement its Repertoire, and Otlet was by 1914 referring more frequently to the Register 'stand alone' informational value:

The Center organizes collections of worldwide importance… the International Museum, the International Library, the International Bibliographic Catalogue and the Universal Documentary Archives…all parts of one Universal body of Documentation, an encyclopedic survey of human knowledge, an enormous intellectual warehouse of books, documents, catalogues and scientific objects…closely consolidated and coordinated in all their parts…these collections will tend progressively to constitute a permanent and complete representation of the entire world. 13

From this statement we can speculate Otlet was both profoundly optimistic about the potential of international cooperation, and about the extent to which access to knowledge could 'better' the political and social lives of the world's citizens. He also has a hyperbolic vision of his own organizations' potential. However, Otlet frequently repeated that the Repertory and Mundaneum (as he later began to call the oak encyclopedic file cabinets and the gleaming marble halls which housed them) were works in progress, Ideals, and that it was better to have a grand concept than be shackled to a short-sighted mandate.

Even after the war had begun, Brussels invaded, and his family was hastily forced into exile, Otlet continued to write of how the citizens of the world might be brought to enlightenment and betterment, if only they could learn and share the great ideas and truths of humanity. The key to this global process of awakening, in Otlet's opinion, was vitally tied to a worldwide organization for information, which would enable people to develop 'a clear understanding of the process that has caught them up, or the machinery in which they have functioned as parts' and 'to accept the great transformations that are necessary.' He even concludes, in his last published work (Monde: Essai d'universalisme, 1935) that books are 'instruments of intellectual freedom, helping to disengage individuals from all mental submission and all types of imposed life.' 14

Odd as it may sound, the endless catalogue of the IIB was to be a key element in this formation of public opinion, for only through universal information access could the great ideas of Progress and Reform make their way effectively through society. Universal solidarity would be based on an ideal of access to universal knowledge.15 Otlet's concept of his Repertory as the 'World Book', to be built and housed in Brussels, became a leitmotif in his writing from this period, around 1916, until his death in 1938. Otlet felt even Brussels itself, host to his internationalist movement might be transformed into "a colossal Book in which the architectural disposition of the buildings while read as people read the stones of the cathedrals in the Middle Ages." 16

Upon returning from Switzerland after the Paris Peace Conference in 1918, Otlet and La Fontaine were relieved to find the IIB, now housed on several floors of the Palais in Brussels, was fully intact. In truth, they learned the Office had been permitted by the German officials to continue its business during the entire Occupation. Even as hardship spread throughout Europe and for many the bare necessities of life were difficult, Otlet continued to pursue his vision of intellectual integration. The Office expanded its staff, with some of the cataloguing secretaries reaching a rate of 250 cards per day. Abstracts and summations were either developed from perusal of the actual material, or cut and pasted from some other source which was disposable, all according to what Otlet labelled the 'Monographic Principle'.

Briefly stated Otlet had little attachment for the physical form or integrity of the book, or even the style and locution of the author. He was interested only in the essentials of the material, which he felt could be culled or cut from their source, then arranged in whatever fashion was necessary or most productive. Better yet, once disentangled from their source, they could be efficiently contrasted and combined with one another for best effect.

Most important of all, with the standardization of physical materials being used in the Repertory records (index cards), combined with the flexibility of decimal classification, the Great Book seemed endlessly expandable. Otlet saw his idealized cards (which purportedly summarized the findings of papers, reported the best lines or elements of poems, and so forth) as nodes, transcending what we might call a surrogate by overcoming all the problems inherent to books; as he bluntly states in his 1934 Traité de Documentation,

books present only some of the scientific data and so only a part of science (the incompleteness of books); they present false as well as true knowledge (the errors of books); they present the same thing more than once (repetitions); they do not bring together information that is set out in several places, but divide it up and scatter it in innumerable volumes (fragmentation and dispersion); they do not present the data set out according to its degree of importance.17

This finally meant the Universal Repertory (at least in Otlet's mind) was to not only summarize and catalogue, but slowly become a technological replacement for the book itself and all the organizations which structured themselves around this manner of information exchange. This is the other reason Otlet seems to strike such a chord with Information Science enthusiasts, for he speaks of the passing of the Book, which would have to give way to the unavoidable evolution brought by new technologies (micro-form, radio and television were beginning to make their appearances), which could 'condense various data into tables, maps, diagrams, schema, illustrate them by drawings, engravings, facsimiles and documentary photographs.'

The next page even includes a picture inspired by Otlet's descriptions of the technologies he assured his fellows were just around the corner, and in many ways he was not wrong about them or their potential to aid information seekers. However, it must be finally said that in the end Otlet's vision and his organization were untenable, and in the lead-up to the Second World War finally succumbed to the public and bureaucratic pressures urging an end to the project.

La Fontaine, the chief political architect of the IIB support and funding, suddenly found himself voted out of the Belgian Senate as the old government was swept from power. The political and economic landscape of Brussels changed rapidly through the years of the Great Depression, and when Otlet raised his eyes from his work some years later, he found himself not at all as well-connected as he had been. Like many of the materials which he and the Mundaneum housed, there was a growing sense that Otlet and his project were relics of another time, which to be fair in many ways they were.

All these social aspects aside however, the great problem was the unending scope of the task itself, which would have been so costly as to weigh heavily on even the most powerful of nations. The United States' Library of Congress had, for example, to cease some of its large-scale projects as the economies of the world again turned to wartime severity. That Belgium would be able to sustain such an expansive enterprise was simply unrealistic.

And finally there is the essential ontological unreality of the goal itself, for as must be intuitively acknowledged. A map which conforms perfectly to its terrain is no longer a guide to the world. It is the world. It is also an impossibility. Such a expansive mapping of the worlds' ideas, one that lived up to the rhetoric and potential as Otlet so often put in words, could never truly exist with any information technology - for there are no objectively defined, naturally occurring essentials in many fields, even in science. Each reader is always potentially looking for the phrase the editor felt was unessential, which is why librarians cannot and should not take the role of censors. Many of Paul Otlet's concepts were generous and well-intentioned, as one who hoped dearly for increased peace, intellectual discussion and global cooperation; but his immodest proposal to discover and elucidate all that was good and best in books spoke of an imperative that far oversteps any abstract or index, encyclopedia or compendium ever attempted.

1 Rayward, (1975), 18.
2 Ibid., 20.
3 Otlet, (1892), 20.
4 La Fontaine, (1894), 323.
5 Rayward, 33.
6 Comeromi, 228. Otlet & La Fontaine soon wrote 'decimal classification constitutes a veritable international scientific language, a complete symbology of science, capable of today bringing to intellectual workers help analogous to that which they received in the Middle Ages from Latin," from Sur la creation d'un repetoire bibliographique universel: note. Documents. (Bruxelles: Conference Bibliographique que Internationale, 1895), p.18-19.
7 Rayward, 69.
8 The French nation having, since founding the Académie Française in 1635, very particular ideas about the treatment of language and written texts. The 'critical' aspect is also an interesting emphasis, which to some degree reveals their belief in an evaluative, as well as an informative approach to all literature. Indexing and cataloguing, in other words, in this tradition cannot and should not be value-free activities. While this ethos effectively insulated French bibliophiles from the charge of Positivist Optimism (as has been since levelled at Otlet), it also opened them to ruthless criticism from their own critics for being complicit with cultural elitism and dogmatism, as most effectively articulated by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who states 'all literature, art and cultural consumption is predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social stratification." See La Distinction, critique sociale du judgement (Paris: Minuit, 1979).
9 Stien, 121.
10 By 1900, scholars and institutions from over 300 separate organizations were paid members contributing to the IIB collection. By 1912, the entire catalogues of 72 leading European libraries had been integrated in the RBU, which all listed the location of over 30,000 periodicals. See Rayward (1975), 135.
11 Rieusset-Lemaré, 305.
12 The Office's International Search Service, est. 1912 (with over 1500 research enquiries per year), fielded questions on every conceivable subject, from blood make-up to the flight of boomerangs to the intricacies of Belgium financial law. A research service was begun to deal with specific concerns and to avoid earlier problems, as when the National Library of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro request copies of 600,000 cards.
13 Otlet (1990), 116.
14 Day, 316.
15 Rieusset-Lemarié, 302.
16 When Otlet published this notion, people were annoyed. The ravaged economy in Europe had already brought the government in Belgium under criticism for its continued support of his encyclopedic project, to the point where one critic responded in the local magazine Le Soir (Jan. 25, 1922) that Otlet was no longer content with his place in the Palais and now wished 'to transform the whole of Brussels into a vast city of cards.'
17 Rayward, (1994), 240.


Abrams, I. "Henri La Fontaine: a true international man", Transnational Associations , vol. 6 (1999), pp. 293-296.

Comeromi, J.P. A History of the Dewey Decimal Classification (University of Michigan, 1969).

Day, Ron Paul. "Otlet's Book and the Writing of Social Space", Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 48 (4), April 1997, pp. 310-318.

Endres-Niggemeyer, Brigitte. Summarizing information (New York : Springer, 1998).

Holmstrom, J. Edwin. "Bibliographical Tools from the Point of View of the User," in International Federation for Documentation. Conference. Transactions : 14th conference, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (The Hague : Central Secretariat, International Federation for Documentation, 1938), pp. 30-33.

La Fontaine, Henri. "Organisation internationale et collective du travail intellectuel: Union Intellectuelle Internationale, esquisse sommaire," Bibliothèque Internationale de l'Alliance Scientifique Universelle (Comitéde Bruxelles, 1884), fasc. IV, pp. 322-43.

Otlet, Paul. "Un peu de bibliographie," Palais (Bruxelles: Vromant, 1892).

Otlet, Paul. International organization and dissemination of knowledge : selected essays of Paul Otlet / trans. W. Boyd Rayward. (New York : Elsevier, 1990).

Rayward, W. Boyd. The Universe of Information : the Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organization (Moscow : All-Union Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (VINITI), 1975).

Rayward, W. Boyd. "Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet and Hypertext", Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 45 (4) 1994, pp. 235-250.

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