International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge. Selected Essays of Paul Otlet, Edited and
Translated By W. Boyd Rayward. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990.
These translations of a selection of Paul Otlet's writings have been a long time in preparation. Now put down, now taken up again over a period of ten years or so in Chicago, London and Sydney, they are dispatched at last to Amsterdam with relief. They follow an earlier biographical and institutional study of Otlet and the International Institute of Bibliography (now FID, the International Federation for Information and Documentation).1 The publication of that work left me with a troubled sense of more that needed to be done, of an obligation incurred but not yet discharged.2 It has always seemed to me that, though not entirely neglected, Otlet's contributions to our understanding of bibliography, documentation and what is now called information storage and retrieval, sometimes information science, and the technical and institutional arrangements needed to maximise their social utility, have not had the attention in the English-speaking world that is their due. It is my hope that the availability of these papers in English, both in themselves and because of the attention that the act of publication can engender, will encourage a renewal of interest in Otlet's thinking about and work for the international organisation and dissemination of knowledge.
There are 17 papers in this volume. Most are short; all are complete in themselves but one, which is excerpted from a much larger work. Though I have arranged them in chronological order, they are essentially of three kinds. The first group comprises papers directly related to theoretical and practical matters of bibliography and documentation. They range from Otlet's first published thoughts on these subjects, "Something About Bibliography" in 1893, to "The International Organisation of Bibliography and Documentation" some 27 years later. Included here are two visionary papers on the documentary uses of microfilm written in collaboration with a remarkable inventor and engineer, Robert Goldschmidt; the first appeared in 1906, the second in 1925. I have not attempted to excerpt Otlet's magisterial and, in its detail and density, rather overwhelming Trait‚ de Documentation of 1934. A reprint of the original French edition was issued in 1989 so that it is currently available in this form. It should be translated into English but that is a task for another.
A second group of papers deals with matters of international organisation in general (which also includes the organisation or bibliography and documentation) and in the context of what was to become the League of Nations and its Organisation for International Intellectual Cooperation. No appreciation of Otlet's life and work is possible without an awareness of his passionate, utopian internationalism and his tireless organisational activity in this domain especially in the decade before, and the period during, the First World War.
The third group of papers is included because their more personal tone allows us to glimpse something of the shadow of the man himself. Here he is, having sent two sons off to the War, one lost in the Battle of the Yser, the other captured by the enemy and later interned in Switzerland, having to explain his presence in Paris in 1915 to the Prefect of Police. His internationalism in wartime was widely misinterpreted. Denounced in the French press and the subject of rumour among certain Belgians in exile as a pacifist and possibly traitorous, he faced conflict with the authorities (Paper ___ Note Sent to M. Durand, Prefect of Police). In July 1931 the 28th Universal Peace Congress met at the Palais Mondial, that phantasmic, grandiose international centre that Otlet and La Fontaine had somehow conjured into a semblance of being as early as 1910 in the Palais du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Otlet used the occasion to issue an "Appeal of the Belgians to the World" in which he expressed his anguish at the direction of the events of the time, invoking in grandiloquent style the institutional solutions he believed would save mankind from itself. The congress was meeting effectively on the eve of the International Disarmament Conference which was to end two years later in irredeemable failure.
Finally, I have included Otlet's tribute to Henri La Fontaine on the occasion of the latter's 80th birthday. The two men had begun to work together in 1892 or 1893 and, companions and colleagues, they continued to develop ideas and organisations henceforth. Such a community of intellectual interest, political and social conviction, and action must surely be rare. In the history of the enterprises they initiated and so assiduously developed together for over forty-five years, it is hard to disentangle their different responsibilities and contributions. Otlet's tribute encapsulates that lifetime of collaboration and mutual regard which ended only with La Fontaine's death in 1943.
In this connection, it is necessary to be aware that Otlet was an active and for some time influential man of affairs. He was also a scholar whose intellectual and organisational commitments were international and pan-disciplinary. In the Editor's footnotes to the papers in this volume, I have tried to provide as necessary a context, explanation, point of reference, clarification for what is mentioned, sometimes quite casually, in the text. The reader will come across references to obscure bibliographers ancient and modern, and publications of various kinds ancient and modern, as Otlet elaborated an historical context for his speculative, innovative ideas. He travelled widely in neutral Europe as the War dragged out its terrible course. He was in Paris while the Treaty of Versailles was negotiated (La Fontaine was an official representative of Belgium at the Conference of Peace). I have tried to identify events and issues that he mentions in passing as he might have understood them at the time. Sometimes I have a footnote on a footnote of his so that the reader will have some idea of what he is referring to. Sometimes there seems to be an error or obscurity in a reference or comment that he makes and I have discussed this in a footnote. I have particularly kept in mind what might help the understanding of the student who, in the course of his or her professional studies, might come upon this book from any one of a number of different backgrounds. Hence I have boldly included a note, for example, on the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas and on Aristotle as well as notes on Zech du Biez, Henri Morel, the Bulletin Des Sommaires and the regime of the Scheldt River. I confess I enjoyed the sleuthing that a number of the notes involved. I hope they will be useful. Tucked away at the end of each paper, they can, of course, be ignored.
"The Bibliography of the Works of Paul Otlet" at the end of the book is as complete as I have been able to make it. I have included one or two items I have found in "near-published" form in various libraries. It is a much fuller and more accurate bibliography than that in my earlier book. This is riddled with errors and omissions that are, in part my own fault and, in part, the result of the process of publishing in a country that was then effectively closed so that communication with the publisher was well nigh impossible save for an occasional telegram. I have a particular debt of gratitude in relation to the completion of the present version of the bibliography to M. Bruynseels of the BibliothŠque Albert Ier in Brussels, who, when I was on a rushed trip, arranged for me to have access to that library's stacks to search through runs of various periodicals, conference proceedings and so on for Otlet publications. The search for items in the last year or so has taken on a life of its own and has been great fun. M. Andr‚ Canonne of the Centre de Lecture Publique de la Communaut‚ Fran‡aise in LiŠge contributed and so did Mr. Ben Godegebuure of FID Headquarters in the Hague. I offer special thanks to M. Pieter Uyttenhove, now in Paris, who is studying urban reconstruction and development in Brussels after the Wars. He has sent references, found and copied articles for me and in general has helped strengthen my faith in the international 3community of scholars.
I have not tried to compile a complete bibliography of secondary source materials. There is a voluminous literature on the Universal Decimal Classification which I have for the most part ignored. What is included in the secondary list has been of particular interest to me either in or of itself or as representing a special kind of contribution. I have also included a selected list of sources I used in compiling the Editor's notes. In some places in the notes themselves I have included full references and they are not reproduced in this list.
At the University of Chicago, I had two splendid research assistants who have probably forgotten that they were involved in the inception of this project: Joyce Saricks and Kathleen Prendergast. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Gerry Byrne for help with organising the typing of preliminary drafts of much of this material. That this book exists at all is owing to the enthusiasm and conviction of Stella Keenan, former Secretary-General of FID and to the continuing interest and support of Ben Godegebuure, Executive Director of FID. Professor K.V. Sinclair of James Cook University, has offered advice on particular issues of translation that I brought to him, as has Miss Nadia Kemfe of the University of New South Wales. Lesley Payne of the State Library of New South Wales has helped with proof-reading the text. Ann-Maree Walsh of the School of Librarianship at the University of New South Wales has been wonderfully patient and skilful at the word-processor as revision after revision has been presented to her. Above all I salute Ray Locke of the School of Librarianship for help with the physical preparation of the text, help, as with all he does, that far exceeded the bounds of duty. A small Special Research Grant from the Faculty of Professional Studies at the University of New South Wales provided the funds needed to complete this project and for such mercies I am most grateful.
While acknowledging the various kinds of help I have received from the wonderful friends and colleagues mentioned above I hasten to say that any errors that remain in this work are my responsibility alone.
W. Boyd Rayward,
1. W. Boyd Rayward, The Universe of Information: The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organisation. FID Publication 520; Moscow: VINITI, 1975.
2. W. Boyd Rayward, "The Times
of Their Lives: A Personal Reflection on Biography and history," Proceedings
of the 4th Forum on Library History. Clayton, Vict: Monash University,
1990 (in press).
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