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

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


I’ve been butting my head against a wall. There’s some writing that needs done and I just can’t get there. Here’s the situation:

  1. I agree. Information is difficult to study. We need to move to either artefacts or practices and dispense with “information”
  2. I’m not sure how to position my own work within this literature without introducing so many modalities that I need to recreate the position. My goal is to build out on this premise with methodology and application. I don’t want to just say the same thing in yet another way.
<>One of the issues is that I feel a bit like a dilettante. I can parrot some of the rhetoric but I don’t have a rigorous base of knowledge. I suppose it’s time to build some ideas so that I can walk-the-walk.

My first foray into learning the walk is to address the whole question of “documentation.”

Friday, April 15, 2005

Information as thing

I've written about information-as-thing in the past and, in general, I'm a fan of moving study towards practice and performance. That said, in certain cases information has tangible components that have a profound impact on ensuing social and professional practices. A common example is the materiality of certain documents: regardless of what books contain, the physical objects have to be handled in a particular manner. With the increase in electronic data we now have to deal with "virtual materiality." I recently came across an interesting report/comment letter prepared in response to a ongoing debate within the financial securities community. The issue is the introduction of "penny quoting" for options pricing. As it stands, most options and securities are quotes at 10-cent intervals. The SEC is considering proposals to introduce penny quoting to drive the theoretical efficiency of the markets. From a policy perspective, penny quoting makes sense. Unfortunately, there is a profound impact from an information perspective. Penny quoting will require a far greater number of quotations from market makers. This wrinkle has Reuters quite concerned. It seems that quote providers are already struggling to keep up with recent shifts in trading behaviour (e.g., smaller lots traded more frequently and computer-driven automatic--or "algo"--trading). Things could get worse:

"If quoting in pennies is approved, and the minimum price increment for the BBO [best bid, best offer] is changed to one cent, Reuters estimates that the data rate of the BBO could increase by as much as 100% and reach 89,000 mps by June 2005. Bandwidth usage cold be as high as 18,000 kilobytes by June 2005. Penny quoting would cause the full OPRA feed to increase immediately by 100% and to reach 124,000 mps and 25,000 kilobytes in bandwidth by June 2005." (pg. 12)

Yikes! These are some big numbers. To put this all in perspective, I talked to a colleague who has some experience with ticker plants. He noted that to support their quotation feed from NASDAQ required some pretty hard-core hardware (including in-memory databases), gigabit Ethernet infrastructure with level 3 switches, and 9 T1s (~216 telephone lines).

Given the importance of the markets for our economy, and the importance of this very basic information (quotations), it seems that the physicality of virtual information is, indeed, an issue.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


It seems that I'm slowing down in some of my writing; I'm starting to get distracted from my main task: completing my dissertation. Of course, finishing revisions on papers is never an inspiring process. Regardless, my brain is starting to feel crowded. I'm thinking of other projects before completing the ones in front of me. By creating a list, hopefully I can get back to the task at hand.

1. Day in the life of the Russell 3000. I've got the data; now I just have to write the papers. I'm thinking of two different papers. The first may be an explication of predictive models for inlinks i.e., for industry x, how many inlinks should the site have. This analysis would be most appropriate for an online journal since it would of interest to a a number of different non-academic audiences. A second paper--more academic in tone--could discuss the performative and predictive implications of the correlations between inlink and market performance.

2. The history of the numbered works of mechanical movements. While exploring the TM and AGS I've come across another interesting chapter in the history of handbooks. The numbered books of mechanical movements (e.g., Gardner D. Hiscox's 1800 Mechanical Movements and Devices and 970 Mechanical Appliances and Novelties of Construction; and Henry T. Brown's 507 Mechanical Movements). These books seem to have been quite popular and have undergone a number of editions. Unfortunately, their history is almost completely lost. Hiscox has a brief entry in The Dictionary of Authors Who Died Before 1950 while Brown seems to have disappeared completely. Some quick searches through old stand-bys like Proquest's Historical New York Times has yielded very little. The story of these funny little books remains to be told.

3. Work behaviour as represented in cartoons. While browsing through the shelves of my favourite retail establishment (Lee Valley Tools) I came across a remarkable series of reprints. The Bull of the Woods was a daily cartoon about life in a machine shop. It was the Dilbert of its day. Indeed, such an anlysis is just begging to be completed.

4. Bentham's head. The final little project niggling in the back of my mind relates to the remarkable story of Jeremy Bentham's embalmed head. Unfortunately, the story of the macabre circumstances of Bentham's demise, dissection, embalment, stuffing, and display seems to have faded as the import of his panopticon has grown in stature. He apparently laid out the reasons for his, er... unique... last will and testament in a manuscript entitled Auto-Icon; or, Farther uses of the dead to the living. Many claim that this work is actually a forgery and was never actually written by Bentham. It looks like it's time for a bit of semantic analysis! Of course, the problem probably isn't as vital as say, demonstrating that Shakespeare authored parts of the King James Bible, or that Shakespeare was actually Francis Bacon, or that Marlowe actually wrote works attributed to Shakespeare, or anything else related to the Bard. But hey! I'm talking about the embalmed head of the guy who gave us utilitarian ethics, the panopticon, and Greek/Latin port-manteaus like "international", "maximise", and "codification." What could be more important?

My dissertation, I suppose.