A century before Google entered the consciousness of the world’s population residents of Belgium had access to their very own analogue search engine. The Repertoire Bibliographique Universal as it was known consisted of hundreds of thousands of meticulously cross referenced index cards. For a small fee members of the public could request information on any subject imaginable and would then be sent copies of all cards relevant to their query. By 1912 the RBU was responding to over 1500 requests for information a year and enquirers were being warned if their query was likely to produce more than fifty results.
This remarkable project was the brain child of Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, two visionary young men whose passion for documentation was borne from staunch pacifist ideals. They dreamt of a City of Knowledge in which the leading institutions of the world would come together and radiate knowledge in a bid to create peace and universal co-operation.
In 1919 the duo managed to secure funding and space from the Belgian Government after La Fontaine, a lawyer who had headed the International Peace Bureau and been awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1913, managed to convince them that it would help them in their bid to house The League of Nations Headquarters. However their support proved to be short lived and was withdrawn three years later in 1922. Only repeated lobbying from Otlet and La Fontaine caused them to change their minds.
The collection was renamed The Mundaneum in 1924 and continued to grow. At the same time Otlet, always keen to embrace the potential of new technology, was working on a microfiche encyclopaedia. He had been instrumental in its creation back in 1906 when it was known as micro-photography. Somewhat astonishingly, the year before he had also predicted the mobile telephone in his Les aspects du livre (1905)
‘Tomorrow telephony will be wireless, just l like telegraphy. Who can stop us from believing this? We shall witness a new transformation of the book (…) Everyone will carry, in his or her pocket, a tiny little handset that will be tuned with the turn of a screw to the wavelength adapted by each emitting centre.’
The twenties also saw Otlet pushing ahead with his plans for a World City which would contain a World Museum, World University, a World Library and Documentation Centre, Embassy offices, an Olympic Centre, residential areas and a park. Geneva, Antwerp and Chesapeake Bay near Washington were all mooted as possible sites and Le Corbusier was one of many architects who submitted plans. However his utopian vision would ultimately remain a pipe dream.
By 1934 The Mundaneum’s holdings had reached 15 million cards. Otlet, as ever way ahead of the pack, was starting to realise the potential for wires and radio waves to connect the entire world and bring knowledge into any home. In what he referred to as Radiated Library Vision he imagined a time where people could call a library for information and have a librarian send the relevant pages of books as TV signals. He called this ‘the televised book,’ and even suggested dividing the screens into sections to display several books at the same time. It wasn’t quite multiple windows or browser tabs but it was getting there. By suggesting that the phone screen combination may one day replace books he was even well on the way to predicting the Kindle.
However, in the same year that Otlet was envisaging his precursor to the internet, the Belgian government’s patience finally ran out and the Mundaneum was forced to close for good. Otlet protested by keeping vigil outside the locked offices, but to no avail. In truth, to many his ideas had always seemed grandiose and unfocused.
Tragically both Otlet and La Fontaine would die having seen their project stripped of all funding and partially destroyed when the Germans requisitioned The Mundaneum as a store for Third Reich Art in 1940. What remained of the collections were re- housed in a large but decrepit building in Leopold Park where they languished for decades.
It wasn’t until 1990s and the advent of the World Wide Web that interest in Otlet and La Fontaine’s projects and theories began to gain momentum and support for a museum began to grow. The collections were transferred to Mons in 1993 and five years later a museum opened in a stunning Art Deco building previously used as a department store.
The museum holds the remains of the original Mundaneum, still a working reference tool which can be accessed by appointment, as well as the personal archives of Otlet and La Fontaine. There are also archives relating to anarchism, pacifism and feminism, a cause to which La Fontaine and his sister were particularly devoted to. Regular exhibitions on these themes are held in the temporary exhibition space.
Having recognised their origins in Otlet and La Fontaine’s work Google began to offer support in 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Museum is now frequently referred to as the paper Google. It may no longer have a claim to holding the entire world’s knowledge but its millions of 3×5 index cards housed in rows of elegant wooden drawers provide a remarkable snapshot of what that was thought to be in the early twentieth century.