House, City, World, Nation, Globe

From Mondothèque

Natacha Roussel

This timeline starts in Brussels and is an attempt to situate some of the events in the life, death and revival of the Mundaneum in relation to both local and international events. By connecting several geographic locations at different scales, this small research provokes cqrrelations in time and space that could help formulate questions about the ways local events repeatedly mirror and recompose global situations. Hopefully, it can also help to see which contextual elements in the first iteration of the Mundaneum were different from the current situation of our information economy.

The ambitious project of the Mundaneum was imagined by Paul Otlet with support of Henri La Fontaine at the end of the 19th century. At that time colonialism was at its height, bringing a steady stream of income to occidental countries which created a sense of security that made everything seem possible. According to some of the most forward thinking persons of the time it felt as if the intellectual and material benefits of rational thinking could universally become the source of all goods. Far from any actual move towards independence, the first tensions between colonial/commercial powers were starting to manifest themselves. Already some conflicts erupted, mainly to defend commercial interests such as during the Fashoda crisis and the Boers war. The sense of strength brought to colonial powers by the large influx of money was however quickly tempered by World War I that was about to shake up modern European society.

In this context Henri La Fontaine, energised by Paul Otlet's encompassing view of classification systems and standards, strongly associates the Mundaneum project with an ideal of world peace. This was a conscious process of thought; they believed that this universal archive of all knowledge represented a resource for the promotion of education towards the development of better social relations. While Otlet and La Fontaine were not directly concerned with economical and colonial issues, their ideals were nevertheless fed by the wealth of the epoch. The Mundaneum archives were furthermore established with a clear intention, and a major effort was done to include documents that referred to often neglected topics or that could be considered as alternative thinking, such as the well known archives of the feminist movement in Belgium and information on anarchism and pacifism. In line with the general dynamism caused by a growing wealth in Europe at the turn of the century, the Mundaneum project seemed to be always growing in size and ambition. It also clearly appears that the project was embedded in the international and 'politico-economical' context of its time and in many aspects linked to a larger movement that engaged civil society towards a proto-structure of networked society. Via the development of infrastructures for communication and international regulations, Henri La Fontaine was part of several international initiatives. For example he launched the 'Bureau International de la paix' as early as 1907 and a few years after, in 1910, the 'International Union of Associations'. Overall his interventions helped to root the process of archive collection in a larger network of associations and regulatory structures. Otlet's view of archives and organisation extended to all domains and La Fontaine asserted that general peace could be achieved through social development by the means of education and access to knowledge. Their common view was nurtured by an acute perception of their epoch, they observed and often contributed to most of the major experiments that were triggered by the ongoing reflection about the new organisation modalities of society.

Museology merged with the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB) which had its offices in the same building. The ever-expanding index card catalog had already been accessible to the public since 1914. The project would be later known as the World Palace or Mundaneum. Here, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine started to work on their Encyclopaedia Universalis Mundaneum, an illustrated encyclopaedia in the form of a mobile exhibition.

The ever ambitious process of building the Mundaneum archives took place in the context of a growing internationalisation of society, while at the same time the social gap was increasing due to the expansion of industrial society. Furthermore, the internationalisation of finances and relations did not only concern industrial society, it also acted as a motivation to structure social and political networks, among others via political negotiations and the institution of civil society organisations. Several broad structures dedicated to the regulation of international relations were created simultaneous with the worldwide spreading of an industrial economy. They aimed to formulate a world view that would be based on international agreements and communication systems regulated by governments and structured via civil society organisations, rather than leaving everything to individual and commercial initiatives. Otlet and La Fontaine spent a large part of their lives attempting to formulate a mondial society. While La Fontaine clearly supported international networks of civil society organisations, Otlet, according to Vincent Capdepuy[1], was the first person to use the French term Mondialisation far ahead of his time, advocating what would become after World War II an important movement that claimed to work for the development of an international regulatory system. Otlet also mentioned that this 'Mondial' process was directly related to the necessity of a new repartition and the regulation of natural goods (think: diamonds and gold ...), he writes:
« Un droit nouveau doit remplacer alors le droit ancien pour préparer et organiser une nouvelle répartition. La “question sociale” a posé le problème à l’intérieur ; “la question internationale” pose le même problème à l’extérieur entre peuples. Notre époque a poursuivi une certaine socialisation de biens. […] Il s’agit, si l’on peut employer cette expression, de socialiser le droit international, comme on a socialisé le droit privé, et de prendre à l’égard des richesses naturelles des mesures de “mondialisation”. »[2].

The approaches of La Fontaine and Otlet already bear certain differences, as one (Lafontaine) emphasises an organisation based on local civil society structures which implies direct participation, while the other (Otlet) focuses more on management and global organisation managed by a regulatory framework. It is interesting to look at these early concepts that were participating to a larger movement called 'the first mondialisation', and understand how they differ from current forms of globalisation which equally involve private and public instances and various infrastructures.

The project of Otlet and Lafontaine took place in an era of international agreements over communication networks. It is known and often a subject of fascination that the global project of the Mundaneum also involved the conception of a technical infrastructure and communication systems that were conceived in between the two World Wars. Some of them such as the Mondothèque were imagined as prospective possibilities, but others were already implemented at the time and formed the basis of an international communication network, consisting of postal services and telegraph networks. It is less acknowledged that the epoch was also a time of international agreements between countries, structuring and normalising international life; some of these structures still form the basis of our actual global economy, but they are all challenged by private capitalist structures. The existing postal and telegraph networks covered the entire planet, and agreements that regulated the price of the stamp allowing for postal services to be used internationally, were recent. They certainly were the first ones during where international agreements regulated commercial interests to the benefit of individual communication. Henri Lafontaine directly participated in these processes by asking for the postal franchise to be waived for the transport of documents between international libraries, to the benefit of among others the Mundaneum. Lafontaine was also an important promoter of larger international movements that involved civil society organisations; he was the main responsible for the 'Union internationale des associations', that acted as a network of information-sharing, setting up modalities for exchange to the general benefit of civil society. Furthermore, concerns were raised to rethink social organisation that was harmed by industrial economy and this issue was addressed in Brussels by the brand new discipline of sociology. The 'Ecole de Bruxelles'[3] in which Otlet and La Fontaine both took part was already very early on trying to formulate a legal discourse that could help address social inequalities, and eventually come up with regulations that could help 're-engineer' social organisation.

The Mundaneum project differentiates itself from contemporary enterprises such as Google, not only by its intentions, but also by its organisational context as it clearly inscribed itself in an international regulatory framework that was dedicated to the promotion of local civil society. How can we understand the similarities and differences between the development of the Mundaneum project and the current knowledge economy? The timeline below attempts to re-situate the different events related to the rise and fall of the Mundaneum in order to help situate the differences between past and contemporary processes.

1865 The International Union of telegraph, is set up it is an important element of the organisation of a mondial communication network and will further become the International Telecommunication Union (UTI)[4] that is still active in regulating and standardizing radio-communication. STANDARD WORLD
1870 Franco-Prussian war. EVENT WORLD
1874 The ONU creates the General Postal Union[5] and aims to federate international postal distribution. STANDARD WORLD
1875 General Conference on Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France. STANDARD WORLD
1882 Triple Alliance, renewed in 1902. EVENT WORLD
1889 Henri Lafontaine creates La Société Belge de l'arbitrage et de la paix. EVENT NATION
1890's First colonial wars (Fachoda crisis, Boers war ...). EVENT WORLD
1890 Henri Lafontaine meets Paul Otlet. PERSON CITY
1891 Franco-Russian entente', preliminary to the Triple entente that will be signed in 1907. EVENT WORLD
1891 Henri Lafontaine publishes an essay Pour une bibliographie de la paix. PUBLICATION NATION
1893 Otlet and Lafontaine start together the Office International de Bibliologie Sociologique (OIBS). ASSOCIATION CITY
1894 Henri Lafontaine is elected senator of the province of Hainaut and later senator of the province of Liège-Brabant. EVENT NATION
1895 2-4 September First Conférence de Bibliographie at which it is decided to create the Institut International de Bibliographie (IIB) founded by Henri La Fontaine. ASSOCIATION CITY
1900 Congrès bibliographique international in Paris. EVENT WORLD
1903 Creation of the international Women's suffrage alliance (IWSA) that will later become the International Alliance of Women. ASSOCIATION WORLD
1904 Entente cordiale between France and England which defines their mutual zone of colonial influence in Africa. EVENT WORLD
1905 First Moroccan crisis. EVENT WORLD
1907 June Otlet and Lafontaine organise a Central Office for International Associations that will become the International Union of Associations (IUA) at the first Congrès mondial des associations internationales in Brussels in May 1910. ASSOCIATION CITY
1907 Henri Lafontaine is elected president of the Bureau international de la paix that he previously initiated. PERSON NATION
1908 July Congrès bibliographique international in Brussels. EVENT CITY
1910 May Official Creation of the International union of associations (IUA). In 1914, it federates 230 organizations, a little more than half of them still exist. The IUA promotes internationalist aspirations and desire for peace. ASSOCIATION WORLD
1910 25-27 August Le Congrès International de Bibliographie et de Documentation deals with issues of international cooperation between non-governmental organizations and with the structure of universal documentation. ASSOCIATION WORLD
1911 More than 600 people and institutions are listed as IIB members or refer to their methods, specifically the UDC. ASSOCIATION WORLD
1913 Henri Lafontaine is awarded the Nobel Price for Peace. EVENT WORLD
1914 Germany declares war to France and invades Belgium. EVENT WORLD
1916 Lafontaine publishes The great solution: magnissima charta while in exile in the United States. PUBLICATION WORLD
1919 Opening of the Mundaneum or Palais Mondial at the Cinquantenaire park. EVENT CITY
1919 June 28 The Traité de Versailles marks the end of World War I and creation of the Societé Des Nations (SDN) that will later become the United Nations (UN). EVENT WORLD
1924 Creation (within the IIB), of the Central Classification Commission focusing on the development of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). ASSOCIATION NATION
1931 The IIB becomes the International Institute of documentation (IID) and in 1938 and is named International Federation of documentation (IDF). ASSOCIATION WORLD
1934 Publication of Otlet's book Traité de documentation. PUBLICATION WORLD
1934 The Mundaneum is closed after a governmental decision. A part of the archives are moved to Rue Fétis 44, Brussels, home of Paul Otlet. MOVE HOUSE
1939 September Invasion of Poland by Germany, start of World War II. EVENT WORLD
1941 Some files from the Mundaneum collections concerning international associations, are transferred to Germany. They are assumed to have propaganda value. MOVE WORLD
1944 Death of Paul Otlet. He is buried in Etterbeek cemetery. EVENT CITY
1947 The International Telecomunication Union (UTI) is attached to the UN. STANDARD GLOBE
1956 Two separate ITU committees, the Consultive Committee for International Telephony (CCIF) and the Consultive Committee for International Telegraphy (CCIT) are joined to form the CCITT, an institute to create standards, recommendations and models for telecommunications. STANDARD GLOBE
1963 American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) is developed. STANDARD GLOBE
1966 The ARPANET project is initiated. ASSOCIATION NATION
1974 Telenet, the first public version of the Internet founded. STANDARD WORLD
1986 First meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) , the US-located informal organization that promotes open standards along the lines of "rough consensus and running code". STANDARD GLOBE
1992 Creation of The Internet Society, an American association with international vocation. STANDARD WORLD
1993 Elio Di Rupo organises the transport of the Mundaneum archives from Brussels to 76 rue de Nimy in Mons. MOVE NATION
2012 Failure of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to reach an international agreement on Internet regulation. STANDARD GLOBE

Additional timelines


Last Revision: 28·06·2016
  1. Capdepuy, In the prism of the words. Globalization and the philological argument
  2. Paul Otlet, 1916, Les Problèmes internationaux et la Guerre, les conditions et les facteurs de la vie internationale, Genève/Paris, Kundig/Rousseau, p. 76.

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AuthorNatacha Roussel +
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