Archive for November 2011

More Otlet … a lot more!

It was recently my great honor to participate as an examiner in defense of a new Ph.D. dissertation by Wouter Van Acker, at the University of Ghent in Belgium. Interestingly enough, the dissertation was produced in the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture. The title of the work is Universalism as Utopia: A Historical Study of the Schemes and Schemas of Paul Otlet (1868-1944).

I want to draw attention to the work in a couple of ways. First, I think the dissertation is not to be made public through deposit, so we should make all conscious efforts to urge the author to publish the work. It is an immense synthesis of Otlet’s career, and includes many illustrations from his papers at the Mundaneum and elsewhere. There is immense value in both the compilation and the sensitive synthesis. So, keep an eye peeled for dissemination of this work. I won’t even attempt to review the work here, but I do want to draw attention to it.

I was interested as a participant to see how wide-ranging a discussion we had about the disciplinary roots of this research. Of course, many of Otlet’s “schemes and schemas” were systems for knowledge organization. As I read the dissertation, and as I pondered how to participate in the conversation, I kept reminding myself that the document was not produced in an iSchool division of knowledge organization, because it might well have been. Certainly much of the work of Otlet, even that explicitly directed at the founding of a world-city, was essentially an extension of knowledge organization. What I take, then, from the conversation, is a renewed sense of the critical importance of knowledge organization as substrate for everything else.

I also was quite specifically interested in the physical specifications of space for knowledge repositories. That is, Otlet’s ideas about how to organize everything, from a seaside resort to a movable museum, reflected a sense of the human in the physical space surrounded by knowledge, and thus the organization of the knowledge was more than just an abstraction, it was also structure in which human activity could take place. That was a pretty common idea, I think, at the turn of the 20th century. We see it in Martel’s 7 Points for the Library of Congress Classification, for instance. And there are many other examples of classifications designed to fit specific physical spaces. KOS as architecture, literally, in other words. I think there is a fascinating set of historical hypotheses in there somewhere.

Questions also arose about the UDC, and based on my work with the Knowledge Space Lab (tracing the growth and evolution of the UDC over time;, I found myself wondering about dimensionality and facets. That is, if faceted KOS have the possibility of facilitating multidimensional knowledge representation, and I’m certain they do, then why do we get the usual list of suspects in the UDC (space, time, language, and so forth). I think my question is too ill-formed as of yet, so I’ll have to beg your indulgence while I ponder what it is I really mean to say here. My colleague Charles van den Heuvel suggested the mutildimensionality was there, not in the specific elements of the facets but rather in their potential for multiple combination. We’ll see where this leads us.

Perhaps on a more humorous note, I was quite impressed with the process. There were two defenses (2!), one private and one public. The public defense was quite formal, and I might add I enjoyed it immensely. Here are some photos of the event:

Finally (for now), congratulations to Wouter Van Acker for a brilliant defense of a magnificent piece of research.