Saturday, April 16, 2005

Wikipedia vs. Otlet

Otlet’s vision of the Universal Book has been compared to other early conceptualization of hypertext such as Nelson’s Xanadu or Bush’s Memex(Rayward, 1994) . As noted by Frohmann, “Otlet’s story of the Universal Book is epistemic narrative writ large, and perhaps the most radical reification of information before our contemporary musings about digital information as pure thought.”(Frohmann, 2004 pg. 39) The recent popularity of Wikipedia gives us cause to revisit the work of Otlet and to explore differences between Otlet’s vision and the realization of Wikipedia.

Otlet’s vision of the Universal Book was as a massively interconnected database of the world’s knowledge. This knowledge was collected from extant documentary forms and encoded on the then cutting-edge bibliographic technology: 3x5 index cards. Frohmann describes the process:

“The production of the Universal Book—a massive collection of cards, each recording a nugget of information—by expertly trained cadres of documentalists is an image of the world’s books deconstructed, only to be reconstructed n a Book whose purpose and essence are purely, and rigorously, epistemic.” (pg. 40)

Frohmann then cites Otlet’s own description of the universal book: “This Book, the ‘Biblion,’ the Source, the permanent Encyclopedia, the Summa, will replace chaos with a cosmos. It will represent a systematic, complete and current registration of all the facts relating to a particular branch of knowledge.” (pg. 40)

At it’s peak in the 1930s, Otlet’s Universal Bibliography Repertory had reached 15-million entries after 40 years. Compare this number with the 1.3 million encyclopaedic entries of all languages currently contained in Wikipedia(Terdiman, 2005a) compiled since its birth in 2001 (Terdiman, 2005b) . Like the Universal Book, Wikipedia is a massive and interconnected collection of documents related to the state of knowledge in the world. Unlike the Universal Book, however, Wikipedia contains full encyclopaedic entries running to a length of many pages rather than file cards. Two characteristics of Wikipedia are remarkable different from the Universal Book. Instead of “cadres of documentalists” Wikipedia is supported by a people who voluntarily create and maintain entries. Terdiman’s (2005b) description of several “power Wikipedians” is hardly a representation of a technical elite. Pink(2005) describes Einar Kvaran, another power Wikipedian: tall, hale, art history expert without credentials, and living and writing from a trailer with a dialup Internet connection.

Instead of a “permanent Encyclopedia” devoted to the world’s knowledge, Wikipedia represents something else. According to Pink, “Wikipedia represents a belief in the supremacy of reason and the goodness of others. In the Wikipedia ideal, people of goodwill sometimes disagree. But from the respectful clash of opposing viewpoints and the combined wisdom of the many, something resembling the truth will emerge. Most of the time.”

The tension between these approaches to compiling a universal deposit of knowledge—expertly aggregated “facts,” or socially constructed and vetted agglomeration—needs to be considered and reconciled. Perhaps a return to the work of Alder(1998) will help me to tie some of these threads together (Diderot, SCOT, theatrum machinarum, images, etc.).


Alder, K. (1998). Making things the same: Representation, tolerance and the end of the ancien regime in France. Social Studies of Science, 28(4), 499-545.

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

Pink, D. H. (2005). The book stops here. Wired 13.03. Retrieved April 15, 2005, from

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

Terdiman, D. (2005a, March 8). Wiki becomes a way of life. Wired News. Retrieved April 15, 2005, from,1284,66814,00.html

Terdiman, D. (2005b, January 10). Wikipedia faces growing pains. Wired News. Retrieved April 15, 2005, from,1284,66210,00.html


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