Paper Google, Index cards, and the evolution of information

Paper Google, Index cards, and the evolution of information

Many of you are fond of the card catalog, so this little find may be of some interest. Poking around on the internet, I came across an article on Popular Mechanics about the history of the index card, and how the advent of the modern index card was due in no small part to the development of the library catalog. As an aside, they referred to the Mundaneum in Brussels which maintained the world’s largest repository of documentation.

Intrigued, I looked it up. Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine started the project , creating the International Office of Sociological Bibliography in 1893. What started as a collection of books branched out to photographs, maps, newspapers and articles– microfiche was created in 1906 to help support the desire to document everything. Information, however, grew and grew and the scope of the project was rapidly expanded to the point where it was simply not possible to document everything. They did what they could, though.

The Mundaneum was more then just a collection of information, hence the nickname Paper Google. If you were to write into the Mundaneum and request information on a subject, sending along your blank index cards, you would receive them back with information. Cool, right?

Vast swaths of this collection of knowledge, however, are gone, lost to World War II. What is left can be fond in Mons, Brussels. Should I ever find myself in Brussels, I would certainly visit. Even so, the glimpse at a particular section of knowledge management is cool. After all, there is data and metadata, and technology to capture it. As one evolves, so do the others to catch up or take advantages of developments, and so it goes on. Index cards were an advantage over big catalog books that had to be reprinted with every change; electronic catalogs are an advantage over card catalogs where a work can only be classified one way (or more than one way but with many cards and man hours to facilitate it). It will be interesting to see what additional changes are in store in the future.