Saturday, April 16, 2005

Documentation: Otlet

The term “documentation” was coined by Paul Otlet (Rayward, 1997). Otlet used the term to describe not just the actual physical objects found in library collections but to describe an entire process reflective of the practices of his own International Federation for Information and Documentation. The process included the production of works, the collecting of works, summary analysis, systematic redistribution of the works, codification of the facts inherent in the work, and the production of encyclopaedic works to correlate and define an information space for the works and their embodied facts.

Otlet envisioned—and diligently worked toward establishing—an interconnected database of the world’s knowledge, his Universal Book. This technology was based on the 3”x5” index card, the leading bibliographic technology of his day. By extracting the facts embodied in various works and transcribing them onto index cards filed according to Otlet’s Universal Decimal Classification, an individual had access to the collected knowledge of the world.

Unfortunately, Otlet’s story is a tragic one. He died in the closing days of World War II, a broken man. His life’s work was scattered and his contribution to information science was largely forgotten until scholars such as Boyce Rayward and Michael Buckland took a renewed interest in his work.

Otlet’s story has been told elsewhere (Buckland, 1997; Rayward, 1991, 1994, 1997; Wright, 2003). My interest in his work stems from the attention given him by scholars such as Bernd Frohmann (2004) in their calls for an “epistemology of practice” in information science. Otlet’s own epistemology was certainly positivistic rather than relativistic. Frohmann summarizes Otlet’s position:

“When facts are extracted from books, and from each author’s personal preferences of order and arrangement, their Universal Decimal class notation places them in the ‘sequences’ required for knowledge production. The facts therefore migrate from many scattered individual and personal books to one great, collective, and impersonal book: the Universal Book.” (pg. 39)

This talk of facts disembodied from their material form or practices of products seems to be at odds with Frohmann’s epistemology of practice and its roots in the social studies of science and technology. I can only assume that Frohmann’s re-purposing of the term, or the renewed interest in documentation as demonstrated by institutions such as the Document Academy ( has a different purpose than rehashing Otlet’s epistemology. A comment made by Rayward in one of his papers on Otlet provides a hint of what this purpose may be: “Documentation is not only a set of complex professional tasks based on the tools and techniques that Otlet and his colleagues devised, it is also the set of rationalisations that provide a context for their application.” (Rayward, 1997)

In this new discourse of documentation, Otlet seems to fulfill his role once again as a tragic hero. Although Rayward and Frohmann laud Otlet’s initiatives, they are critical of his aims, purposes, and epistemology. Frohmann in particular takes Otlet’s focus on documents and extends the project beyond Otlet’s epistemological blinders to include the tasks and rationalizations mentioned by Rayward.

This new trend in documentation presents a problem of nomenclature. The “documentation” of Otlet seems to represent a fundamentally different field of practice than the “documentation” of Frohmann. In discussion of documents and information, Otlet cites “natural objects, artifacts, objects bearing traces of human activity (such as archaeological finds), explanatory models, educational games, and works of art”
(Buckland, 1997) Frohmann takes a seemingly non-material stance: “Once practices stabilize, information can emerge.” (2004, pg. 18) How can we reconcile these two positions?

I suggest that we adopt a new term to describe the renewed interest in documentation. The term I have in mind comes from another character of note in documentary circles: Francis Bacon. Bacon is often (and perhaps erroneously) considered to be the father of naturalistic enquiry. Frohmann (2004) for example, discusses his ideas and concepts for the creation of knowledge. Of particular interest to Frohmann is Bacon’s rejection of Platonism and Aristotelianism and his call for a new means of creating knowledge through his documentary “Tables of Discovery.” In his New Atlantis, Bacon describes a whole new social order devoted to the creation of knowledge and use of knowledge. This order contains a variety of stratified characters such as Merchants of Light, Depredators, Mystery-Men, Compilers, Lamps, and Dowry-Men. The ideas underlying this social order are articulated in Bacon’s Novum Organum or New Organon.

My intention is not, however, to use Bacon for his ideals of empiricism. Rather, I suggest that we look to Bacon for his articulation of the limitations of particular approaches to the collection of knowledge, including empiricism. Stephen Jay Gould
(2000) perhaps best articulated this position in his response to “the Science Wars.” Gould reintroduced Bacon’s thoughts on the obstacles to discovering natural knowledge. Bacon describes two guilts related to sensory experience. The guilt of destitution “identifies object limits upon physical ranges of human perception.” (pg. 255) The guilt of deception “designates a more active genre of mental limitation defined by internal biases that we impose upon external nature.” (pg. 255) Bacon further described these biases by four different idols described as either “attracted” or “innate.” According to Gould, “[t]he attracted idols denote social and ideological biases imposed from without, for they ‘have slid into men’s minds either by the placits and sects of philosophers, or by depraved laws of demonstrations.’” (pg. 255) Bacon’s “idols of the theatre” represent limitations imposed by outdated theories “that persist as constraining myths.” The “idols of the marketplace” represent limitations from outmoded ways of reasoning and failure of language to describe observed phenomena. The innate idols include those “idols of the cave” relating to individual characteristics, “idols of the tribe” related to the limitations of the ways in which human reasoning works.

To me, it seems that Frohmann, Buckland, and others have adopted Otlet’s notions of documentation and have recognized within it certain limitations, particularly those idols of the theatre and the marketplace that permeated Otlet’s work. By moving beyond strict positivism and exploring the practices behind the cycles of documentary production, these new investigations of documentation strive to dispense with outmoded theories related to information-channel studies in information science, and to introduce new language for the exploration of documentary phenomena. With a nod to the work of Bacon, I intend to refer to this new strain of documentary studies as the novum documentum as a means of separating it from the work of Otlet.


Buckland, M. K. (1997). What is a "document"? Retrieved September 18, 2001, from

Frohmann, B. (2004). Deflating information : from science studies to documentation. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Gould, S. J. (2000). Deconstructing the "science wars" by reconstructing an old mold. Science, 287(5451), 253-261.

Rayward, W. B. (1991). The case of Paul Otlet, pioneer of information science, internationalist, visionary: Reflections on biography. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 23, 135-145.

Rayward, W. B. (1994). Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 45, 235-250.

Rayward, W. B. (1997). The origins of information science and the International Institute of Bibliography/International Federation for Information and Documenation (FID). Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48, 289-300.

Wright, A. (2003, November 10, 2003). Forgotten Forefather: Paul Otlet. Retrieved May 16, 2004, from


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