The search engine of 1896

In 1896 Paul Otlet set up a bibliographic query service by mail: a 19th century search engine.

Zinneke, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the 900th post on this site. Every time I hit a new century I like to write a bit about the nature and history of knowledge itself. For example, a hundred posts ago I wrote about Universal Decimal Classification, an attempt to systematically label and organise all human knowledge. Well, that classification was the head of a much more ambitious endeavour, and today I’d like to explore it a little more.

The end of the 19th century was awash with the written word: books, monographs, and publications of all kinds. It was fiendishly difficult to find what you wanted in that mess. Bibliographies – compilations of references on a specific subject – were the maps to this vast informational territory. But they were expensive and time-consuming to compile.

Paul Otlet had a passion for information. More precisely, he had a passion for organising information. He and Henri La Fontaine made bibliographies on many subjects – and then turned their efforts towards creating something better. A master bibliography. A bibliography to rule them all, nothing less than a complete record of everything that had ever been published on every topic. This was their plan: the grandly named Universal Bibliographic Repertory.

This ambitious endeavour listed sources for every topic that its creators could imagine. The references were meticulously recorded on index cards that were filed in a massive series of drawers like the ones pictured above. The whole thing was arranged according to their Universal Decimal Classification, and it was enormous. In 1895 there were four hundred thousand entries. At its peak in 1934, there were nearly sixteen million.

How could you access such a mega-bibliography? Well, Otlet and La Fontaine set up a mail service. People set in queries and received a summary of publications relating to that topic. Curious about the native religions of Sumatra? Want to explore the 19th century decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform? Send a request to the Universal Bibliographic Repertory, get a tidy list of the references you need. It was nothing less than a manual search engine, one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Encyclopedia Universalis
Paul Otlet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Otlet had many more ambitions: a world encyclopaedia of knowledge, contraptions to easily access every publication in the world (he was an early microfiche pioneer), and a whole city to serve as the bright centre of global intellect. These ambitions were mostly unrealised, due to lack of funds and the intervention of war. But today Otlet is recognised as an important figure in the history of information science.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s