The Encyclopaedia Webbanica

Once again, today’s post will begin with a story- this time, one about a place that was envisaged over a hundred years ago. It was called the Mundaneum.

The Mundaneum today is a tiny museum in the city of Mons, Belgium, which opened in its current form in 1998. It is a far cry from the original, first conceptualised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri la Fontaine and fellow lawyer and pioneer Paul Otlet in 1895. The two men, Otlet in particular, had a vision- to create a place where every single piece of knowledge in the world was housed. Absolutely all of it.

Even in the 19th century, when the breadth of scientific knowledge was a million times smaller than it is today (a 19th century version of New Scientist would be publishable about once a year), this was a huge undertaking, this was a truly gigantic undertaking from a practical perspective. Not only did Otlet and la Fontaine attempt to collect a copy of just about every book ever written in search of information, but went further than any conventional library of the time by also looking through pamphlets, photographs, magazines, and posters in search of data. The entire thing was stored on small 3×5 index cards and kept in a carefully organised and detailed system of files, and this paper database eventually grew to contain over 12 million entries. People would send letters or telegraphs to the government-funded Mundaneum (the name referencing to the French monde, meaning world, rather than mundane as in boring), who in turn would have their staff search through their files in order to give a response to just about any question that could be asked.

However, the most interesting thing of all about Otlet’s operation, quite apart from the sheer conceptual genius of a man who was light-years ahead of his time, was his response to the problems posed when the enterprise got too big for its boots. After a while, the sheer volume of information and, more importantly, paper, meant that the filing system was getting too big to be practical for the real world. Otlet realised that this was not a problem that could ever be resolved by more space or manpower- the problem lay in the use of paper. And this was where Otlet pulled his masterstroke of foresight.

Otlet envisaged a version of the Mundaneum where the whole paper and telegraph business would be unnecessary- instead, he foresaw a “mechanical, collective brain”, through which people of the world could access all the information the world had to offer stored within it via a system of “electric microscopes”. Not only that, but he envisaged the potential for these ‘microscopes’ to connect to one another, and letting people “participate, applaud, give ovations, [or] sing in the chorus”. Basically, a pre-war Belgian lawyer predicted the internet (and, in the latter statement, social networking too).

Otlet has never been included in the pantheon of web pioneers- he died in 1944 after his beloved Mundaneum had been occupied and used to house a Nazi art collection, and his vision of the web as more of an information storage tool for nerdy types is hardly what we have today. But, to me, his vision of a web as a hub for sharing information and a man-made font of all knowledge is envisaged, at least in part, by one huge and desperately appealing corner of the web today: Wikipedia.

If you take a step back and look at Wikipedia as a whole, its enormous success and popularity can be quite hard to understand. Beginning from a practical perspective, it is a notoriously difficult site to work with- whilst accessing the information is very user-friendly, the editing process can be hideously confusing and difficult, especially for the not very computer-literate (seriously, try it). My own personal attempts at article-editing have almost always resulted in failure, bar some very small changes and additions to existing text (where I don’t have to deal with the formatting). This difficulty in formatting is a large contributor to another issue- Wikipedia articles are incredibly text-heavy, usually with only a few pictures and captions, which would be a major turn-off in a magazine or book. The very concept of an encyclopaedia edited and made by the masses, rather than a select team of experts, also (initially) seems incredibly foolhardy. Literally anyone can type in just about anything they want, leaving the site incredibly prone to either vandalism or accidental misdirection (see for Randall Munroe’s take on how it can get things wrong). The site has come under heavy criticism over the years for this fact, particularly on its pages about people (Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly-half, has apparently considered taking up stamp collecting, after hundreds of fans have sent him stamps based on a Wikipedia entry stating that he was a philatelist), and just letting normal people edit it also leaves bias prone to creep in, despite the best efforts of Wikipedia’s team of writers and editors (personally, I think that the site keeps its editing software deliberately difficult to use to minimise the amount of people who can use it easily and so try to minimise this problem).

But, all that aside… Wikipedia is truly wonderful- it epitomises all that is good about the web. It is a free to use service, run by a not-for-profit organisation that is devoid of advertising and is funded solely by the people of the web whom it serves. It is the font of all knowledge to an entire generation of students and schoolchildren, and is the number one place to go for anyone looking for an answer about anything- or who’s just interested in something and would like to learn more. It is built on the principles of everyone sharing and contributing- even flaws or areas lacking citation are denoted by casual users if they slip up past the editors the first time around. It’s success is built upon its size, both big and small- the sheer quantity of articles (there are now almost four million, most of which are a bit bigger than would have fitted on one of Otlet’s index cards), means that it can be relied upon for just about any query (and will be at the top of 80% of my Google searches), but its small server space, and staff size (less than 50,000, most of whom are volunteers- the Wikimedia foundation employs less than 150 people) keeps running costs low and allows it to keep on functioning despite its user-sourced funding model. Wikipedia is currently the 6th (ish) most visited website in the world, with 12 billion page views a month. And all this from an entirely not-for-profit organisation designed to let people know facts.

Nowadays, the Mundaneum is a small museum, a monument to a noble but ultimately flawed experiment. It original offices in Brussels were left empty, gathering dust after the war until a graduate student discovered it and eventually provoked enough interest to move the old collection to Mons, where it currently resides as a shadow of its former glory. But its spirit lives on in the collective brain that its founder envisaged. God bless you, Wikipedia- long may you continue.


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