Otlet, Bush + Proto-Databases


Today in my Archives, Libraries + Databases grad seminar we’re starting our database unit. I’ve got lots of great material to share, and it’s proving somewhat difficult to keep track of all the videos, images, etc., in my lesson plan — so I figured I’d just dump everything into a blog post. It’ll keep me more organized and it’ll allow others to have access to this material, too.

Here’s what we’ll have read for class:

  • Michel Foucault, Preface to The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books [1970]1994): xv-xxiv.
  • Muhammad Haadi, “The Evolution of DatabaseAll About Databases (October 18, 2010).

On Paul Otlet:

On Vannevar Bush:

  • Vannevar Bush, “As We May ThinkThe Atlantic (July 1945).
  • Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is a Memory” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008): 148-171. [stop @ 161]
Foucault at a table -- although this looks more like disorder to me
Disorder (!) at the Foucauldian table.

Foucault’s Chinese encyclopedia bit drawn from Borges’s “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”:

  • “it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what thing the universe is.”
  • See the Chesterton quotation @ the end — reminds of us Foucault’s “archive” from Archaeology of Knowledge

Table: Operating Table vs. Table of Graphic Presentation

From Topinka, “Foucault, Borges, Heterotopia: Producing Knowledge in Other Spaces,” Foucault Studies:

Foucault presents The Order of Things in part as an attempt to rediscover in “what space of order knowledge was constituted.” Foucault posits that order requires a space for constitution, that humans need to place things on particular sites in order to make sense of them. To describe this space, Foucault borrows the metaphor of the operating table upon which “the umbrella encounters the sewing machine” and “enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world.” The operating table girds ordering by providing a foundational space for that ordering. Faced with the incongruous, we must resort to the operating table, the space that undergirds the classification of things and thus our ability to form knowledge. If, as Foucault argues, truth has a history, then it is upon this operating table that this history sits, waiting to be recovered. Thus Foucault asks, “On what ‘table’, according to what grid of identities, similitudes, analogies, have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and similar things?” In other words, in what space do we build our order? This question is troubling: if it is true that our knowledge rests on an operating table, if it is true that we can make sense of things only because of an underlying structural support, then removing this support or destabilizing it, as heterotopias do, would represent nothing less than an attack on our way of knowing, a direct assault upon our episteme.

Foucault on a table
Dude likes tables.


  • Chinese encyclopedia: xv
  • The site, the table on which such juxtaposition would be possible: bottom xvi-xvii
  • Table
    • On what hypothetical metal table is such juxtaposition possible?
    • Utopias + heterotopias: xviii
    • China, as a “culture entirely devoted to the ordering of space”: xix
    • “nickel-plated, rubbery table swathed in white, glittering beneath a glass sun devouring all shadow – the table where, for an instant, perhaps forever, the umbrella encounters the sewing machine”
      • Comte de Lautréamont (pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse, 1846-1970; Uruguayan-born French writer, called the grandfather of surrealist poetry): Lautréamont describes a young boy as “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!” – phrase picked up by Andre Breton and made into a Surrealist mantra
      • Dali: Painting & Film at MoMA: enter ==> “Unrealized Work” (guy in chair) ==> bottom: sewing machine and umbrella



  • Tabula: xvii
    • “grid of identities”: bottom xix + “great checkerboard of distinct identities”: xxiv
      • mapping resemblances, sameness / otherness: xxiv
    • system of elements,” “fundamental codes of a culture”: xx – hints of structuralism; recall discussion of the “archive” in AoK
      • discussions of aphasiacs (mutes): xviii – no order w/o speech; atopia / aphasia xix
      • Foucault’s archaeology, defining “systems of simultaneity” xxiii
      • epistemological field, the EPISTEME, in which knowledge…manifests a history which is…that of its conditions of possibility”: xxii
  • Quasi-continuity in history of ideas – but there are breaks – e.g., Classical age: theory of representation + language; in 19th c., “man enters…the field of Western knowledge” – new humanists: xxiii
  • RUPTURE: xx-xxi – when order becomes opaque, reveals that it exists
    • How did we “make manifest the existence of [previous informational] orders?”: xxi
    • What rupture has happened in our epistemological realm? Move to the database episteme (if there is such a thing)?
      • Lyotard, Condition of Postmodernity: crisis of the grand narrative; spread and maturation of info-processing machines – knowledge in the “form of informational commodity” + commodification of knldg
        • Birth of “information” (read about for next week)
      • grid of identities”: bottom xix + “great checkerboard of distinct identities”: xxiv à intimation of the database
    • Otlet + Bush as firebrands

Etymology of “database”

datum given, that which is given, neuter past participle of dare, to give.

  • Epistemological implications for regarding knowledge as “given”?
  1. A thing given or granted; something known or assumed as fact, and made the basis of reasoning or calculation; an assumption or premiss from which inferences are drawn. (1646)
  2. pl. The quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by computers and other automatic equipment, and which may be stored or transmitted in the form of electrical signals, records on magnetic tape or punched cards, etc. (1946)
  3. numerical facts, collected together for reference or information (1899)

Evolution of Databases

  • Flat Files / Hierarchical Data Model / Networked Data Model / Relational DB / Object-oriented DB (see Haadi for examples)


Pioneer in field of “Documentation” (standardized “information handling,” aka, information science)

  • See also the fabulous Suzanne Briet, another “documentation” pioneer,” who proposed “an unlimited horizon of physical forms and aesthetic formats for documents and an unlimited horizon of techniques and technologies (and of ‘documentary agencies’ employing these) in the service of multitudes of particular cultures.” She infused information science with the concerns of cultural studies. [also this]

[Watch through 8:56 of this super-boring video] Charles van den Heuvel (NL) Authoritative Annotations, Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaneum, Wikipedia and the Stanford Encycloped from network cultures on Vimeo.

  • Planned to create master bibliography of all world’s published knowledgecollected “magazine and journal articles, photographs, posters and all kinds of ephemera — like pamphlets — that libraries typically ignored”
  • Universal Decimal Classification System (1895, Otlet w/ Henri La Fontaine): adapted from Dewey Decimal System – “assigned individual numerical subject codes to documents, allowing them to be searched and cross-referenced in a standardized manner”
    • “the rational, scientific language of numbers and symbols used in Decimal Classification was the ideal way to express the “links, the genealogy even, of ideas and objects, their relationships of dependence and subordination, of similarity and difference.””
    • “Otlet and LaFontaine eventually persuaded the Belgian government to support their project, proposing to build a “city of knowledge” that would bolster the government’s bid to become host of the League of Nations.” – Library, Museum, Scientific Societies, University, Institute
  • Ideas/facts – “documents” – independent of their physical medium – searchable
    • 3×5 cards containing “best grains” from media – over 12 million entries
  • Mail/phone research service




  • Realized he had to scrap paper – plans for a “mechanical, collective brain” – Monde
    • “examined the technological advancements of his time that he regarded as potential substitutes for the book: the radio, television, telephone, and telegraph, sound recordings, cinema, and microfilm (which he developed alongside Robert Goldschmidt)” (Springfield)
      • Proposed microfiche in 1906


via NY Times
via NY Times
  • 1934: plans for global network of computers, or “electric telescopes
    • 1935: foreshadowing World Wide Web: “All the things of the universe and all those of man would be registered from afar as they were produced. Thus the moving image of the world would be established—its memory, its true duplicate. From afar anyone would be able to read the passage, expanded or limited to the desired subject, that could be projected on his individual screen. Thus, in his armchair, anyone would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.”
  • “Otlet’s vision hinged on the idea of a networked machine that joined documents using symbolic links.”
    • he saw a smarter kind of hyperlink. Whereas links on the Web today serve as a kind of mute bond between documents, Otlet envisioned links that carried meaning by, for example, annotating if particular documents agreed or disagreed with each other. That facility is notably lacking in the dumb logic of modern hyperlinks.
    • “Some scholars believe Otlet also foresaw something like the Semantic Web” – “aspired not just to draw static links between documents, but also to map out conceptual relationships between facts and ideas.”
      • “Critics of the Semantic Web say it relies too heavily on expert programmers to create ontologies (formalized descriptions of concepts and relationships) that will let computers exchange data with one another more easily.”
    • “Otlet also saw the possibilities of social networks, of letting users “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus.””


  • Mondotheque desk: “all knowledge, all information could be so condensed that it could be contained in a limited number of works placed on a desk.… The Universal Book created from all books would become very approximately an annex to the brain, a substratum even of memory, an external mechanism and instrument of the mind but so close to it, so apt to its use that it would truly be a sort of appended organ, an exodermic appendage.” [See Televised Book]
  • Mundaneum ransacked by Nazis – rediscovered in 60s by graduate student
  • Today, team of full-time cataloguers has worked through only 10% of collection – “The archive’s sheer sprawl reveals both the possibilities and the limits of Otlet’s original vision. Otlet envisioned a team of professional catalogers analyzing every piece of incoming information, a philosophy that runs counter to the bottom-up ethos of the Web.”
    • Mundaneum recently partnered w/ Google: see this and this
      • “Google will sponsor and partner in both the upcoming exhibition at the Mundaneum headquarters in Mons and a speaker series on Internet issues at the Mundaneum and the University of Ghent… Mundaneum will use Google to present and promote its conferences and exhibitions. It has also constructed an online tour of its dazzling premises.”
    • See this fabulous interactive exhibition by Google’s “Cultural Institute” — from which many of the above images were drawn

What can we read into the episteme of Otlet’s time by understanding his model for organizing knowledge?



  • Advances in science à we’re “bogged down” in “mountains of research” – “publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record” – how to “thread through” the “maze,” to not just compress and store, but facilitate consultation of those records, and selection from among them?
    • Above: Brown/MIT 1995 Vannevar Bush symposium: on the psychological basis of Memex [36:12 – 39:50-ish]
    • Use “mechanical aids” to transform scientific records – we now have access to more cost-effective reliable machines (e.g., advances in photography, fax, microfilm, development of vocoder)
    • Use mechanical aids for repetitive thought, freeing mind for creative thought
    • “…it proceeds by examining in turn every one of a large set of items, and by picking out those which have certain specified characteristics
    • Most indexing happens by artificial means – alphabetical or numerical; class/subclass – and items can exist in only one location; human mind operates by association – a “web of trails” that are strengthened by use
      • “Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.”
  • “A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers.”
      • Content bought on microfilm; user summons object by typing in its code; can control speed @ which one scans through a book; can add “windows” of multiple sources, or add marginalia
      • User builds an associative trail and names it; can “remix” (my term) trails into a new books
      • How to use the Memex + build trails:


  • Conflating the internet and Memex leads us to ignore digital memory’s ephemerality
  • Memex was to parallel the human mind, which would be “granted the privilege of forgetting” and spared chore of repetition – yet there’s value in repetition
  • “no difference between access to and understanding the record, between what would be called…machine reading and human reading and comprehension, between information and argument. The difficulty supposedly lies in selecting the data, not in reading it, for it is assumed that reading is a trivial act” – acknowledges no possibility of misreading, misunderstanding (159) – “assumes that human records make possible the construction of an overarching archive of human knowledge in which there is no gap, no absence – a summation of human knowledge… [I]f there is discontinuity in history it is due to a historical accident, to our inability to adequately consult the human record, to human fallibility. This accident, however, can be solved by machines, which are viewed here as surprisingly accident-free and permanent.” (159)
  • Yet “a machine alone… cannot turn ‘an information explosion into a knowledge explosion’” – “the problem is not access but rather larger epistemological frameworks” (159)
    • Bush ignores benefits of repetition
  • Mistaken conflation of memory and storage; memory degenerates
  • The ontology of digital media is defined by memory – presumed infallibility of digital memory, totality – encapsulated Enlightenment ideal that better + more info leads to better knowledge
  • Digital = constant repetition and regeneration / refreshing – “layering of chronologies” (170)

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