#CityLIS Student Perspectives: Summer Reading – Siu Ah Hanna James on Cataloging the World by Alex Wright

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #CityLIS students.

Current Information Science student Siu Ah Hanna James writes about a book she read in preparation for starting at City.


While I was applying to CityLIS, I started to follow some academics and researchers on Twitter (hope they don’t think I am a stalker), which eventually led me to the summer reading list on Dr Lyn Robinson’s Blog. Of all the books she listed, I only managed to finish 2 of them (Phew…), while taking baby steps through another.

One of the book I managed to finish reading is Alex Wright (2014) Cataloguing the World: Paul Otlet and the birth of the information age. OUP: Oxford . I reckon a biography would be easier to read than a book written by a philosopher. I was right about the book is easy to read, but it is way more than just a biography of Paul Otlet, a Belgian lawyer, also being called the ‘father of Information Science’. It is about a man who had ideas well ahead of his contemporaries.  It is about the documentation of humanities since the 16th century and the development of faceted classification systems. It is about the relevance of Otlet’s paradigm in the networked knowledge to nowadays’ World Wide Web. It is about how he spent his life to cataloging the world with Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) on 3”x5” index cards. It is about a peace activist’s dream being mortally crushed by the cruelty of wars. Then, he was forgotten by many for 40 years until the 1980s. It is a sad story, but not without positive messages after all.

Another protagonist in the book is Henri La Fontane, laureate of 1913 Nobel Peace Prize. His lifelong partnership with Otlet led to the founding of Palais Mondial (Now Mundaneum), Union of International Associations (UIA), Institut International de Bibliographie (IIB). Together with Otlet, they are the forebears of internet and as put by Wright, ‘the notion was to bring humanity closer together by sharing information and knowledge’ (P. 214).

Herbert George Wells is another notable name in the book. Most people know him as the author of The War of the Worlds (1898) and Time Machine (1895) (or maybe just me…). In World Brain, a collection of essays published by Wells in 1938, he explored the idea of ‘a World Encyclopedia to hold men’s minds together in a common interpretation of reality’.  Despite Wright wrote that there was no evidence that Wells and Otlet had ever met, he remarked that they would have been aware of each other’s work and likened their visions. ‘The major difference between the two men involved theory versus practice. Wells was an essayist and polemicist; Otlet tried to build the institutions that would bring his vision to fruition’ (P.213).

All these great men, and among others like Watson Davis (P.217), another significant figure in the field of Library and Information Science, had witness the influx of information at the turn of the 19th century. ‘The first rumblings of our present-day data deluge really started during the Second Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’. This gave rise to contrive solutions to solve ‘the problem of managing humanity’s growing intellectual output’ (P.17). This somehow highlights the nature of library and information science has not changed, ‘The realm if library and information science then, is the realm of the document’ (Robinson, 2014). Towards the end of the book, Wright concluded Otlet’s spirit of internationalism has not disappeared. New forms of global collaboration keep emerging.

Apart from those who interested in library science, this book would appeal to a wide audience who enjoys reading about the intellectual movements from the Belle Époque period, through the Roaring Twenties to the end of WWII. It reminds the readers while we look forward with the advent of modern internet, we should also take a back view to these great minds as inspirations. ‘Otlet acted not out of a desire to make money…… but out of sheer idealism. His was a quest for universal knowledge, world peace, and progress of humanity as a whole’ (P. 304).We, consumer and creator of information, are responsible and should be mindful of maintaining an ethical infosphere.

This book is largely Euro-centric, focusing on the intellectual society on the European continent. Meanwhile, the public library movements thrived across the Atlantic seeking to serve a wider community and Melvil Dewey’s decimal classification system had been bearing fruit intellectually and financially for him. It is an age setting the foundation stone for modern LIS; an age for me to savour as a LIS student.


Robinson, L (2014, November 17). 21st Century Library and Information Science [Blog Post] Retrieved from https://thelynxiblog.com/2014/11/17/21st-century-library-and-information-science/


This post was first published on September 29th 2017, on Hanna’s personal blog My Library Cosmos.

You can follow Hanna on Twitter.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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