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The Continuing Relevance of Paul Otlet, the International Institute of Bibliography/International Federation for Documentation, and the Documentation Movement for Information Science and Studies

  • Author(s): Dewey, Scott Hamilton
  • et al.

This article discusses the historical legacy and present-day impact of Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, two of the earliest pioneers of the documentation movement, and the organization they founded in 1895, known originally as the International Institute for Bibliography (IIB), later as the International Federation for Documentation (FID). Otlet, La Fontaine, and the FID are remembered for their bold, positivist vision of creating a complete, accurate, objective master database of all human knowledge in the pre-computer era—a vision partially expressed in the Mundaneum, a massive collection of hard-copy data assembled in their home country of Belgium in the early twentieth century. Predictably, this ambitious project failed.

Yet, as this paper explains, Otlet, La Fontaine, and their organization nevertheless had a lasting and significant impact on the evolution of modern information science, identifying both goals and problems for later information theorists that remain relevant even in the digital age. Their prewar documentalist movement, inquiring into the fundamental nature of documents and of information, paved the way for the work of postwar documentalists including Suzanne Briet and S. R. Rangathan, among others; in turn, the work of the postwar documentalists overlaps with and impacted the rise of computer-based information theory and science and the dawn of the digital age from the 1950s onward. The FID itself persisted as an active organization into the 1990s, convening conferences, publishing books, and generally promoting international bibliographic research and standardization as well as international scholarly cooperation—which relates to the wider legacy of Otlet and La Fontaine as early pioneers of international peace, trans-national institutional cooperation, and global pooling of information to confront human problems. Their activities were direct precursors of, for instance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Even as to their positivist presumptions which ultimately led to failure, the example of Otlet and La Fontaine remain relevant—for humans generally, and scientists, social scientists, and other professionals in particular, remain all too prone to positivistic fallacies of perfect and objective knowledge, notwithstanding the warnings against such presumptions from postmodernism.

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