Alex Wright and W. Boyd Rayward’s articles shed light on Paul Otlet, a man that paved the way for many of the conceptual frameworks and ideas about the organization of information that we have today. Although both authors stop short of stating Otlet’s influence on the creation of the World Wide Web, Otlet’s foresight about the possibilities of networks and linked data is incredible nonetheless. He understood the importance of the uniformity of data in that “if cards and sheets were standardized, especially as to size and weight, then it became possible to create collaboratively continuously expanding databases in these formats” (Rayward 293). This may seem like a simple concept, but the standardization of data is extremely important and an issue that we struggle with today in the case of metadata interoperability. Another of his prescient ideas was “conceptual maps” that “played in simplified, visual form, the intricate relationships of the concepts embraced within various subject areas” (Rayward 294-95), sounding very similar to the linked hypertext context of Wikipedia. Most incredible, however, was Otlet’s view that information should be universally accessible by all, a vision which the Web is facilitating.
I really appreciated this quote from Weinberger’s “The Geography of Knowledge.” Throughout these readings—and throughout this entire class—we have focused on different ways to organize information and the issues that arise due to the inherent subjectivity of every system. It seems, like Weinberger says, that there is “no end to it,” no possible solution to remedy the subjectivity of knowledge organization and the inevitability that culture will change and the system will become outdated.
Again, it seems necessary to instead focus our attention on education. If Dewey’s system is flawed and obsolete and born from a place of accidental closed mindedness, as Weinberger (and many others) have suggested, then rather than focusing only on teaching children in school how to find books, we should invest in teaching them the complexities of the system. We have no choice but to acknowledge the failures openly and often in order to learn from them and to grow.
With electronic systems, it seems possible to establish a catalog interface setting that displays the many iterations of a subject or topic in order to layer an item record with the historical and the current. The New York Public Library Map Warper comes to mind when considering this concept. Rather than look to adjust the now-incorrect geography of an old map—of both physical locations and of knowledge—perhaps it is best to layer the pieces in order to demonstrate change over time.
I’d like to think that there are visionaries among us, like Paul Otlet or Vannevar Bush, who can imagine seemingly fictional systems that one day become reality. Hopefully the next version of the cataloging system will allow readers to reflect on the past while improving the connections between items for unprecedented access.
The UDC, in some ways, seems very similar to Ranganathan’s colon classification system, as it allows more extended classification of items than is possible in the Dewey Decimal System, which makes it much more flexible. I wonder why it is that the UDC has become so popular and widespread while colon classification doesn’t seem to be widely used? In the article by Alex Wright, he mentions that the UDC has been translated into 30+ languages, so that seems to be a big factor there. I guess also Ranganathan’s system seemed to be much more theoretical than the UDC. However, as mentioned in the Rayward article, Otlet also ran into some issues with shelving, which is a problem for colon classification as well.
It’s very impressive to read about the amount that Otlet was able to accomplish, and it’s awful that so much of what he did was destroyed after he devoted decades to it. At least the UDC itself survived, even if Otlet’s Mundaneum did not.