Seeing the network for the trees of knowledge: Paul Otlet's (1868-1944) Universal Network of Documentation
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In several accounts, Paul Otlet has been portrayed as the forgotten forefather of the World Wide Web. Several information historians see in his index card system and UDC system a precursor of current hypertext systems and communication networks. Although several of the current characteristics of the Web may indeed be traced back in history, such comparisons easily fall in the trap of making teleological bridges. Instead, this paper compares the importance of the network metaphor in Otlet's theory with two other metaphors: the tree of knowledge and the universe of knowledge. Otlet used the notion of 'network' only to describe the necessary infrastructure of a communication network between documentation centres and libraries. The word network was used in the sense of transport network, and the comparison was often made with railway networks. As to what concerns the semantic world of knowledge - or what Otlet called the 'universe of knowledge' - the traditional 'tree of knowledge' rather than the network, served as the structural model. The fact that Otlet believed in the model of the tree rather than the network for the future organisation of knowledge, marks an important point in the history of knowledge organisation. The difference between the tree and the network lies in the definition of unity. Otlet reacted against the crisis of a disappearing unity by restoring that unity. He believed in the unity of the sciences and the possibility to control that unity through the scientific community and its institutions.
Networks of design : proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society (UK)
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Architectural History and Theory