In 1893, a young Belgian lawyer named Paul Otlet wrote an essay expressing his concern over the rapid proliferation of books, pamphlets, and periodicals. The problem, he argued, should be “alarming to those who are concerned about quality rather than quantity,” and he worried about how anyone would ever make sense of it all. An ardent bibliophile with an entrepreneurial streak, he began working on a solution with his partner, a fellow lawyer named Henri La Fontaine (who would later go on to join the Belgian Senate and win the Nobel Peace Prize): a “Universal Bibliography” (Repertoire bibliographique universel) that would catalog all the world’s published information and make it freely accessible.
The project won Otlet and La Fontaine a Grand Prize at the Paris World Expo of 1900, and attracted funding from the Belgian government. It would eventually encompass more than 16 million entries ranging from books and periodicals to newspapers, photographs, posters, and audio and video recordings, all painstakingly recorded on individual index cards. Otlet even established an international network of associations and a vast museum called the World Palace (Palais Mondial) or Mundaneum, which at one point occupied more than 100 rooms in a government building.