Tag Archives: platform

OMA to create contemporary art gallery for Galeries Lafayette in Paris

OMA to create contemporary art gallery for Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Galeries Lafayette Foundation by OMA

Galeries Lafayette Foundation by OMA

The Galeries Lafayette Foundation will take over all five storeys of an old industrial building in Le Marais – one of Paris’ oldest neighbourhoods – just east of the Centre Pompidou.

Rem Koolhaas’ firm plans to restore the U-shaped building back to its original condition and complement it with a new exhibition tower, which will occupy the existing courtyard.

The tower will feature two sets of motorised levels that can be split up to create a total of four mobile platforms. These will be able to move up and down to align with different floors, allowing exhibitions to extend beyond the gallery walls.

“The mobile floors offer a new curatorial dimension, complementing the traditional use of the preserved structure,” said OMA in a statement.

[…]

“The architectural concept was derived from the need for flexibility – a common requirement for cultural institutions – and from the restrictions applied to the site by the city heritage authorities,” said OMA.

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Library as Infrastructure: Places: Design Observer

Library as Infrastructure: Places: Design Observer.

Melvil Dewey was a one-man Silicon Valley born a century before Steve Jobs. He was the quintessential Industrial Age entrepreneur, but unlike the Carnegies and Rockefellers, with their industries of heavy materiality and heavy labor, Dewey sold ideas. His ambition revealed itself early: in 1876, shortly after graduating from Amherst College, he copyrighted his library classification scheme. That same year, he helped found the American Library Association, served as founding editor of Library Journal, and launched the American Metric Bureau, which campaigned for adoption of the metric system. He was 24 years old. He had already established the Library Bureau, a company that sold (and helped standardize) library supplies, furniture, media display and storage devices, and equipment for managing the circulation of collection materials. Its catalog (which would later include another Dewey invention, the hanging vertical file) represented the library as a “machine” of uplift and enlightenment that enabled proto-Taylorist approaches to public education and the provision of social services. As chief librarian at Columbia College, Dewey established the first library school — called, notably, the School of Library Economy — whose first class was 85% female; then he brought the school to Albany, where he directed the New York State Library. In his spare time, he founded the Lake Placid Club and helped win the bid for the 1932 Winter Olympics.

Dewey was thus simultaneously in the furniture business, the office-supply business, the consulting business, the publishing business, the education business, the human resources business, and what we might today call the “knowledge solutions” business. Not only did he recognize the potential for monetizing and cross-promoting his work across these fields; he also saw that each field would be the better for it. His career (which was not without its significant controversies) embodied a belief that classification systems and labeling standards and furniture designs and people work best when they work towards the same end — in other words, that intellectual and material systems and labor practices are mutually constructed and mutually reinforcing.

Today’s libraries, Apple-era versions of the Dewey/Carnegie institution, continue to materialize, at multiple scales, their underlying bureaucratic and epistemic structures — from the design of their web interfaces to the architecture of their buildings to the networking of their technical infrastructures. This has been true of knowledge institutions throughout history, and it will be true of our future institutions, too. I propose that thinking about the library as a network of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures — in particular, architectural, technological, social, epistemological and ethical infrastructures — can help us better identify what roles we want our libraries to serve, and what we can reasonably expect of them. What ideas, values and social responsibilities can we scaffold within the library’s material systems — its walls and wires, shelves and servers?

Library as Platform

For millennia libraries have acquired resources, organized them, preserved them and made them accessible (or not) to patrons. But the forms of those resources have changed — from scrolls and codices; to LPs and LaserDiscs; to e-books, electronic databases and open data sets. Libraries have had at least to comprehend, if not become a key node within, evolving systems of media production and distribution. Consider the medieval scriptoria where manuscripts were produced; the evolution of the publishing industry and book trade after Gutenberg; the rise of information technology and its webs of wires, protocols and regulations. [1] At every stage, the contexts — spatial, political, economic, cultural — in which libraries function have shifted; so they are continuously reinventing themselves and the means by which they provide those vital information services.

Libraries have also assumed a host of ever-changing social and symbolic functions. They have been expected to symbolize the eminence of a ruler or state, to integrally link “knowledge” and “power” — and, more recently, to serve as “community centers,” “public squares” or “think tanks.” Even those seemingly modern metaphors have deep histories. The ancient Library of Alexandria was a prototypical think tank, [2] and the early Carnegie buildings of the 1880s were community centers with swimming pools and public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, even rifle ranges, as well as book stacks. [3] As the Carnegie funding program expanded internationally — to more than 2,500 libraries worldwide — secretary James Bertram standardized the design in his 1911 pamphlet “Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings,” which offered grantees a choice of six models, believed to be the work of architect Edward Tilton. Notably, they all included a lecture room.

In short, the library has always been a place where informational and social infrastructures intersect within a physical infrastructure that (ideally) supports that program.

Now we are seeing the rise of a new metaphor: the library as “platform” — a buzzy word that refers to a base upon which developers create new applications, technologies and processes. In an influential 2012 article in Library Journal, David Weinberger proposed that we think of libraries as “open platforms” — not only for the creation of software, but also for the development of knowledge and community. [4] Weinberger argued that libraries should open up their entire collections, all their metadata, and any technologies they’ve created, and allow anyone to build new products and services on top of that foundation. The platform model, he wrote, “focuses our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment” — the “messy, rich networks of people and ideas” — that “those resources engender.” Thus the ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a platform not only for the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and their peers.

Yet the platform metaphor has limitations. For one thing, it smacks of Silicon Valley entrepreneurial epistemology, which prioritizes “monetizable” “knowledge solutions.” Further, its association with new media tends to bracket out the similarly generative capacities of low-tech, and even non-technical, library resources. One key misperception of those who proclaim the library’s obsolescence is that its function as a knowledge institution can be reduced to its technical services and information offerings. Knowledge is never solely a product of technology and the information it delivers.

Another problem with the platform model is the image it evokes: a flat, two-dimensional stage on which resources are laid out for users to do stuff with. The platform doesn’t have any implied depth, so we’re not inclined to look underneath or behind it, or to question its structure. Weinberger encourages us to “think of the library not as a portal we go through on occasion but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town.” It’s like a “canopy,” he says — or like a “cloud.” But these metaphors are more poetic than critical; they obfuscate all the wires, pulleys, lights and scaffolding that you inevitably find underneath and above that stage — and the casting, staging and direction that determine what happens on the stage, and that allow it to function as a stage. Libraries are infrastructures not only because they are ubiquitous and persistent, but also, and primarily, because they are made of interconnected networks that undergird all that foment, that create what Pierre Bourdieu would call “structuring structures” that support Weinberger’s “messy, rich networks of people and ideas.”

It can be instructive for our libraries publics’ — and critical for our libraries’ leaders — to assess those structuring structures. In this age of e-books, smartphones, firewalls, proprietary media platforms and digital rights management; of atrophying mega-bookstores and resurgent independent bookshops and a metastasizing Amazon; of Google Books and Google Search and Google Glass; of economic disparity and the continuing privatization of public space and services — which is simultaneously an age of democratized media production and vibrant DIY and activist cultures — libraries play a critical role as mediators, at the hub of all the hubbub. Thus we need to understand how our libraries function as, and as part of, infrastructural ecologies — as sites where spatial, technological, intellectual and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. And we must consider how those infrastructures can embody the epistemological, political, economic and cultural values that we want to define our communities.

Library as Social Infrastructure
Public libraries are often seen as “opportunity institutions,” opening doors to, and for, the disenfranchised. [6] People turn to libraries to access the internet, take a GED class, get help with a resumé or job search, and seek referrals to other community resources. A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future highlighted the benefits to immigrants, seniors, individuals searching for work, public school students and aspiring entrepreneurs: “No other institution, public or private, does a better job of reaching people who have been left behind in today’s economy, have failed to reach their potential in the city’s public school system or who simply need help navigating an increasingly complex world.” [7]

[…]

Partly because of their skill in reaching populations that others miss, libraries have recently reported record circulation and visitation, despite severe budget cuts, decreased hours and the threatened closure or sale of “underperforming” branches.

[…]

Libraries also bring communities together in times of calamity or disaster. Toyo Ito, architect of the acclaimed Sendai Mediatheque, recalled that after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, local officials reopened the library quickly even though it had sustained minor damage, “because it functions as a kind of cultural refuge in the city.” He continued, “Most people who use the building are not going there just to read a book or watch a film; many of them probably do not have any definite purpose at all. They go just to be part of the community in the building.” [10]

We need to attend more closely to such “social infrastructures,” the “facilities and conditions that allow connection between people,” says sociologist Eric Klinenberg. In a recent interview, he argued that urban resilience can be measured not only by the condition of transit systems and basic utilities and communication networks, but also by the condition of parks, libraries and community organizations: “open, accessible, and welcoming public places where residents can congregate and provide social support during times of need but also every day.” [11] In his book Heat Wave, Klinenberg noted that a vital public culture in Chicago neighborhoods drew people out of sweltering apartments during the 1995 heat wave, and into cooler public spaces, thus saving lives.

The need for physical spaces that promote a vibrant social infrastructure presents many design opportunities, and some libraries are devising innovative solutions. Brooklyn and other cultural institutions have partnered with the Uni, a modular, portable library that I wrote about earlier in this journal. And modular solutions — kits of parts — are under consideration in a design study sponsored by the Center for an Urban Future and the Architectural League of New York, which aims to reimagine New York City’s library branches so that they can more efficiently and effectively serve their communities. CUF also plans to publish, at the end of June, an audit of, and a proposal for, New York’s three library systems. [12] New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, reflecting on the roles played by New York libraries during recent hurricanes, goes so far as to suggest that the city’s branch libraries, which have “become our de facto community centers,” “could be designed in the future with electrical systems out of harm’s way and set up with backup generators and solar panels, even kitchens and wireless mesh networks.”

[…]

I’ve recently returned from Seattle, where I revisited OMA’s Central Library on its 10th anniversary and toured several new branch libraries. [15] Under the 1998 bond measure “Libraries for All,” citizens voted to tax themselves to support construction of the Central Library and four new branches, and to upgrade every branch in the system. The vibrant, sweeping Ballard branch (2005), by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, includes a separate entrance for the Ballard Neighborhood Service Center, a “little city hall“ where residents can find information about public services, get pet licenses, pay utility bills, and apply for passports and city jobs. While the librarians undoubtedly field questions about such services, they’re also able to refer patrons next door, where city employees are better equipped to meet their needs — thus affording the library staff more time to answer reference questions and host writing groups and children’s story hours.

[…]

These entrepreneurial models reflect what seems to be an increasingly widespread sentiment: that while libraries continue to serve a vital role as “opportunity institutions” for the disenfranchised, this cannot be their primary self-justification. They cannot duplicate the responsibilities of our community centers and social service agencies. “Their narrative” — or what I’d call an “epistemic framing,” by which I mean the way the library packages its program as a knowledge institution, and the infrastructures that support it — “must include everyone,” says the University of Michigan’s Kristin Fontichiaro. [19] What programs and services are consistent with an institution dedicated to lifelong learning? Should libraries be reconceived as hubs for civic engagement, where communities can discuss local issues, create media, and archive community history? [20] Should they incorporate media production studios, maker-spaces and hacker labs, repositioning themselves in an evolving ecology of information and educational infrastructures?

These new social functions — which may require new physical infrastructures to support them — broaden the library’s narrative to include everyone, not only the “have-nots.” This is not to say that the library should abandon the needy and focus on an elite patron group; rather, the library should incorporate the “enfranchised” as a key public, both so that the institution can reinforce its mission as a social infrastructure for an inclusive public, and so that privileged, educated users can bring their knowledge and talents to the library and offer them up as social-infrastructural resources.

Many among this well-resourced population — those who have jobs and home internet access and can navigate the government bureaucracy with relative ease — already see themselves as part of the library’s public. They regard the library as a space of openness, egalitarianism and freedom (in multiple senses of the term), within a proprietary, commercial, segregated and surveilled landscape. They understand that no matter how well-connected they are, they actually don’t have the world at their fingertips — that “material protected by stringent copyright and held in proprietary databases is often inaccessible outside libraries” and that, “as digital rights management becomes ever more complicated, we … rely even more on our libraries to help us navigate an increasingly fractured and litigious digital terrain.” [21] And they recognize that they cannot depend on Google to organize the world’s information. As the librarian noted in that discussion on Metafilter:

The [American Library Association] has a proven history of commitment to intellectual freedom. The public service that we’ve been replaced with has a spotty history of “not being evil.” When we’re gone, you middle class, you wealthy, you tech-savvy, who will fight for that with no profit motivation? Even if you never step foot in our doors, and all of your media comes to a brightly lit screen, we’re still working for you.

The library’s social infrastructure thus benefits even those who don’t have an immediate need for its space or its services.

Finally, we must acknowledge the library’s role as a civic landmark — a symbol of what a community values highly enough to place on a prominent site, to materialize in dignified architecture that communicates its openness to everyone, and to support with sufficient public funding despite the fact that it’ll never make a profit. A well-designed library — a contextually-designed library — can reflect a community’s character back to itself, clarifying who it is, in all its multiplicity, and what it stands for. [22] David Adjaye’s Bellevue and Francis Gregory branch libraries, in historically underserved neighborhoods of Washington D.C., have been lauded for performing precisely this function. As Sarah Williams Goldhagen writes:

Adjaye is so attuned to the nuances of urban context that one might be hard pressed to identify them as the work of one designer. Francis Gregory is steel and glass, Bellevue is concrete and wood. Francis Gregory presents a single monolithic volume, Bellevue an irregular accretion of concrete pavilions. Context drives the aesthetic.

His designs “make of this humble municipal building an arena for social interaction, …a distinctive civic icon that helps build a sense of common identity.” This kind of social infrastructure serves a vital need for an entire community.

Library as Technological-Intellectual Infrastructure
Of course, we must not forget the library collection itself. The old-fashioned bookstack was at the center of the recent debate over the proposed renovation of the New York Public Library’s Schwartzman Building on 42nd Street, which was cancelled last month after more than a year of lawsuits and protests. This storage infrastructure, and the delivery system it accommodates, have tremendous significance even in a digital age. For scholars, the stacks represent near-instant access to any materials within the extensive collection. Architectural historians defended the historical significance of the stacks, and engineers argued that they are critical to the structural integrity of the building.

The way a library’s collection is stored and made accessible shapes the intellectual infrastructure of the institution. The Seattle Public Library uses translucent acrylic bookcases made by Spacesaver — and even here this seemingly mundane, utilitarian consideration cultivates a character, an ambience, that reflects the library’s identity and its intellectual values. It might sound corny, but the luminescent glow permeating the stacks acts as a beacon, a welcoming gesture. There are still many contemporary libraries that privilege — perhaps even fetishize — the book and the bookstack: take MVRDV’s Book Mountain (2012), for a town in the Netherlands; or TAX arquitectura’s Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos (2006) in Mexico City.

Stacks occupy a different, though also fetishized, space in Helmut Jahn’s Mansueto Library (2011) at the University of Chicago, which mixes diverse infrastructures to accommodate media of varying materialities: a grand reading room, a conservation department, a digitization department, and a subterranean warehouse of books retrieved by robot. (It’s worth noting that Boston and other libraries contained book railways and conveyer belt retrieval systems — proto-robots — a century ago.) Snøhetta’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library (2013) at North Carolina State University also incorporates a robotic storage and retrieval system, so that the library can store more books on site, as well as meet its goal of providing seating for 20 percent of the student population. [23] Here the patrons come before the collection.

Back in the early aughts, when I spent a summer touring libraries, the institutions on the leading edge were integrating media production facilities, recognizing that media “consumption” and “creation” lie on a gradient of knowledge production. Today there’s a lot of talk about — and action around — integrating hacker labs and maker-spaces. [24] As Anne Balsamo explains, these sites offer opportunities — embodied, often inter-generational learning experiences that are integral to the development of a “technological imagination” — that are rarely offered in formal learning institutions. [25]

The Hunt Library has a maker-space, a GameLab, various other production labs and studios, an immersion theater, and, rather eyebrow-raisingly, an Apple Technology Showcase (named after library donors whose surname is Apple, with an intentional pun on the electronics company). [26] One might think major funding is needed for those kinds of programs, but the trend actually began in 2011 in tiny Fayetteville, New York (pop. 4,373), thought to be the first public library to have incorporated a maker-space. The following year, the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh — which for years has hosted film competitions, gaming tournaments, and media-making projects for youth — launched, with Google and Heinz Foundation support, The Labs: weekly workshops at three locations where teenagers can access equipment, software and mentors. Around the same time, Chattanooga — a city blessed with a super-high-speed municipal fiber network — opened its lauded 4th Floor, a 12,000-square foot “public laboratory and educational facility” that “supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.” Those tools include 3D printers, laser cutters and vinyl cutters, and the instruction includes everything from tech classes, to incubator projects for female tech entrepreneurs, to business pitch competitions.

Last year, the Brooklyn Public Library, just a couple blocks from where I live, opened its Levy Info Commons, which includes space for laptop users and lots of desktop machines featuring creative software suites; seven reserveable teleconference-ready meeting rooms, including one that doubles as a recording studio; and a training lab, which offers an array of digital media workshops led by a local arts and design organization and also invites patrons to lead their own courses. A typical month on their robust event calendar includes resume editing workshops, a Creative Business Tech prototyping workshop, individual meetings with business counselors, Teen Tech tutorials, computer classes for seniors, workshops on podcasting and oral history and “adaptive gaming” for people with disabilities, and even an audio-recording and editing workshop targeted to poets, to help them disseminate their work in new formats. Also last year, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., opened its Digital Commons, where patrons can use a print-on-demand bookmaking machine, a 3D printer, and a co-working space known as the “Dream Lab,” or try out a variety of e-book readers. The Chicago Public Library partnered with the Museum of Science and Industry to open a pop-up maker lab featuring open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and (of course) 3D printers — not one, but three.

Some have proposed that libraries — following in the tradition of Alexandria’s “think tank,” and compelled by a desire to “democratize entrepreneurship” — make for ideal co-working or incubator spaces, where patrons with diverse skill sets can organize themselves into start-ups-for-the-people. [27] Others recommend that librarians entrepreneurialize themselves, rebranding themselves as professional consultants in a complex information economy. Librarians, in this view, are uniquely qualified digital literacy tutors; experts in “copyright compliance, licensing, privacy, information use, and ethics”; gurus of “aligning … programs with collections, space, and resources”; skilled creators of “custom ontologies, vocabularies, taxonomies” and structured data; adept practitioners of data mining. [28] Others recommend that libraries get into the content production business. In the face of increasing pressure to rent and license proprietary digital content with stringent use policies, why don’t libraries do more to promote the creation of independent media or develop their own free, open-source technologies? Not many libraries have the time and resources to undertake such endeavors, but NYPL Labs and Harvard’s Library Test Kitchen, have demonstrated what’s possible when even back-of-house library spaces become sites of technological praxis. Unfortunately, those innovative projects are typically hidden behind the interface (as with so much library labor). Why not bring those operations to the front of the building, as part of the public program?

Of course, with all these new activities come new spatial requirements. Library buildings must incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, acoustical conditions, etc., to accommodate multiple sensory registers, modes of working, postures and more. Librarians and designers are now acknowledging — and designing for, rather than designing out — activities that make noise and can occasionally be a bit messy. I did a study several years ago on the evolution of library sounds and found widespread recognition that knowledge-making doesn’t readily happen when “shhh!” is the prevailing rule.

These new physical infrastructures create space for an epistemology embracing the integration of knowledge consumption and production, of thinking and making. Yet sometimes I have to wonder, given all the hoopla over “making”: are tools of computational fabrication really the holy grail of the knowledge economy? What knowledge is produced when I churn out, say, a keychain on a MakerBot? I worry that the boosterism surrounding such projects — and the much-deserved acclaim they’ve received for “rebranding” the library — glosses over the neoliberal values that these technologies sometimes embody. Neoliberalism channels the pursuit of individual freedom through property rights and free markets [30] — and what better way to express yourself than by 3D-printing a bust of your own head at the library, or using the library’s CNC router to launch your customizable cutting board business on Etsy? While librarians have long been advocates of free and democratic access to information, I trust — I hope — that they’re helping their patrons to cultivate a critical perspective regarding the politics of “technological innovation” — and the potential instrumentalism of makerhood. Sure, Dewey was part of this instrumentalist tradition, too. But our contemporary pursuit of “innovation” promotes the idea that “making new stuff” = “producing knowledge,” which can be a dangerous falsehood.

Library staff might want to take up the critique of “innovation,” too. Each new Google product release, new mobile technology development, new e-reader launch brings new opportunities for the library to innovate in response. And while “keeping current” is a crucial goal, it’s important to place that pursuit in a larger cultural, political-economic and institutional context. Striving to stay technologically relevant can backfire when it means merely responding to the profit-driven innovations of commercial media; we see these mistakes — innovation for innovation’s sake — in the ed-tech arena quite often.

[…]

As Zadie Smith argued beautifully in the New York Review of Books, we risk losing the library’s role as a “different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.” [31] Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, offered an equally eloquent plea for the library as a space of exception:

Libraries are not, or at least should not be, engines of productivity. If anything, they should slow people down and seduce them with the unexpected, the irrelevant, the odd and the unexplainable. Productivity is a destructive way to justify the individual’s value in a system that is naturally communal, not an individualistic or entrepreneurial zero-sum game to be won by the most industrious. [32]

Libraries, she argued, “will always be at a disadvantage” to Google and Amazon because they value privacy; they refuse to exploit users’ private data to improve the search experience. Yet libraries’ failure to compete in efficiency is what affords them the opportunity to offer a “different kind of social reality.” I’d venture that there is room for entrepreneurial learning in the library, but there also has to be room for that alternate reality where knowledge needn’t have monetary value, where learning isn’t driven by a profit motive. We can accommodate both spaces for entrepreneurship and spaces of exception, provided the institution has a strong epistemic framing that encompasses both. This means that the library needs to know how to read itself as a social-technical-intellectual infrastructure.

It’s particularly important to cultivate these critical capacities — the ability to “read” our libraries’ multiple infrastructures and the politics and ethics they embody — when the concrete infrastructures look like San Antonio’s BiblioTech, a “bookless” library featuring 10,000 e-books, downloadable via the 3M Cloud App; 600 circulating “stripped down” 3M e-readers; 200 “enhanced” tablets for kids; and, for use on-site, 48 computers, plus laptops and iPads. The library, which opened last fall, also offers computer classes and meeting space, but it’s all locked within a proprietary platformed world.

In libraries like BiblioTech — and the Digital Public Library of America — the collection itself is off-site. Do patrons wonder where, exactly, all those books and periodicals and cloud-based materials live? What’s under, or floating above, the “platform”? Do they think about the algorithms that lead them to particular library materials, and the conduits and protocols through which they access them? Do they consider what it means to supplant bookstacks with server stacks — whose metal racks we can’t kick, lights we can’t adjust, knobs we can’t fiddle with? Do they think about the librarians negotiating access licenses and adding metadata to “digital assets,” or the engineers maintaining the servers? With the increasing recession of these technical infrastructures — and the human labor that supports them — further off-site, behind the interface, deeper inside the black box, how can we understand the ways in which those structures structure our intellect and sociality?

We need to develop — both among library patrons and librarians themselves — new critical capacities to understand the distributed physical, technical and social architectures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge and program our values. And we must consider where those infrastructures intersect — where they should be, and perhaps aren’t, mutually reinforcing one another. When do our social obligations compromise our intellectual aspirations, or vice versa? And when do those social or intellectual aspirations for the library exceed — or fail to fully exploit — the capacities of our architectural and technological infrastructures? Ultimately, we need to ensure that we have a strong epistemological framework — a narrative that explains how the library promotes learning and stewards knowledge — so that everything hangs together, so there’s some institutional coherence. We need to sync the library’s intersecting infrastructures so that they work together to support our shared intellectual and ethical goals.

 

The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World | Brain Pickings

The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World | Brain Pickings.

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web.

[…]

Otlet tried to assemble a great catalog of the world’s published information, create an encyclopedic atlas of human knowledge, build a network of federated museums and other cultural institutions, and establish a World City that would serve as the headquarters for a new world government. For Otlet these were not disconnected activities but part of a larger vision of worldwide harmony. In his later years he started to describe the Mundaneum in transcendental terms, envisioning his global knowledge network as something akin to a universal consciousness and as a gateway to collective enlightenment.

[…]

What the Nazis saw as a “pile of rubbish,” Otlet saw as the foundation for a global network that, one day, would make knowledge freely available to people all over the world. In 1934, he described his vision for a system of networked computers — “electric telescopes,” he called them — that would allow people to search through millions of interlinked documents, images, and audio and video files. He imagined that individuals would have desktop workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen and multiple movable surfaces — connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources on whatever topics might interest them. As the network spread, it would unite individuals and institutions of all stripes — from local bookstores and classrooms to universities and governments. The system would also feature so-called selection machines capable of pinpointing a particular passage or individual fact in a document stored on microfilm, retrieved via a mechanical indexing and retrieval tool. He dubbed the whole thing a réseau mondial: a “worldwide network” or, as the scholar Charles van den Heuvel puts it, an “analog World Wide Web.”

Twenty-five years before the first microchip, forty years before the first personal computer, and fifty years before the first Web browser, Paul Otlet had envisioned something very much like today’s Internet.

[…]

Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of [its] memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.

Otlet’s prescience, Wright notes, didn’t end there — he also envisioned speech recognition tools, wireless networks that would enable people to upload files to remote servers, social networks and virtual communities around individual pieces of media that would allow people to “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus,” and even concepts we are yet to crack with our present technology, such as transmitting sensory experiences like smell and taste.

[…]

By today’s standards, Otlet’s proto-Web was a clumsy affair, relying on a patchwork system of index cards, file cabinets, telegraph machines, and a small army of clerical workers. But in his writing he looked far ahead to a future in which networks circled the globe and data could travel freely. Moreover, he imagined a wide range of expression taking shape across the network: distributed encyclopedias, virtual classrooms, three-dimensional information spaces, social networks, and other forms of knowledge that anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. He saw these developments as fundamentally connected to a larger utopian project that would bring the world closer to a state of permanent and lasting peace and toward a state of collective spiritual enlightenment.

[…]

The contemporary construct of “the user” that underlies so much software design figures nowhere in Otlet’s work. He saw the mission of the Mundaneum as benefiting humanity as a whole, rather than serving the whims of individuals. While he imagined personalized workstations (those Mondotheques), he never envisioned the network along the lines of a client-server “architecture” (a term that would not come into being for another two decades). Instead, each machine would act as a kind of “dumb” terminal, fetching and displaying material stored in a central location.

The counterculture programmers who paved the way for the Web believed they were participating in a process of personal liberation. Otlet saw it as a collective undertaking, one dedicated to a higher purpose than mere personal gratification. And while he might well have been flummoxed by the anything-goes ethos of present-day social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, he also imagined a system that allowed groups of individuals to take part in collaborative experiences like lectures, opera performances, or scholarly meetings, where they might “applaud” or “give ovations.” It seems a short conceptual hop from here to Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button.

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Would the Internet have turned out any differently had Paul Otlet’s vision come to fruition? Counterfactual history is a fool’s game, but it is perhaps worth considering a few possible lessons from the Mundaneum. First and foremost, Otlet acted not out of a desire to make money — something he never succeeded at doing — but out of sheer idealism. His was a quest for universal knowledge, world peace, and progress for humanity as a whole. The Mundaneum was to remain, as he said, “pure.” While many entrepreneurs vow to “change the world” in one way or another, the high-tech industry’s particular brand of utopianism almost always carries with it an underlying strain of free-market ideology: a preference for private enterprise over central planning and a distrust of large organizational structures. This faith in the power of “bottom-up” initiatives has long been a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture, and one that all but precludes the possibility of a large-scale knowledge network emanating from anywhere but the private sector.