by Laura Cray*
As a self-professed library nerd, I was excited to attend Robert Fox’s lecture, Mapping the Universe of Knowledge, on Monday, May 6, 2013. The lecture focused on work of Paul Otlet, Henri La Fontaine, and Hendrick Christian Andersen and their vision for a world united by knowledge. Robert Fox is professor emeritus from Oxford University and currently visiting Oregon State University as this year’s Horning Visiting Scholar. Monday’s lecture was the first installment in his three part series of lectures entitled, Science International: Universalism and National Interest in the Industrial Age.
Having spent most of my life in the age of Google, I think that it is easy to take Otlet’s vision for the Bibliographic Institute founded in Brussels in 1895 for granted. But, his incredibly detailed Universal Bibliographic Repertory (a variation of the Dewey Decimal System) and the over 15 million entries in his card catalogue represent a vision which extended far beyond his ordered library shelves. As Fox argues, Otlet and his friend and fellow lawyer, La Fontaine, envisioned a world in which all peoples were brought together by knowledge and the universal language of science. This is an ideal echoed again in Hendrick Christian Andersen’s plans for a World City to pull together all of the nations, religions, and people of the world in the name of peace. Perhaps Andersen’s dream was doomed from the moment he selected the Jersey Shore for the location of his peace city, but regardless, the emotional and financial strain of WWI upon the world solidified the city’s fate as naught but a passing novelty of history.
Fox, however, would like to encourage us to think of this period of Universalist dreams as something deeper than novelty. One of his aims in this lecture series is to instill in his audience the number of high profile people and practical aims which have been overshadowed by heady mix the absurd naïveté of some of the era’s loftiest dreamers and the pessimism of modern audiences. In his closing remarks, Fox brought Otlet’s vision of universal access to knowledge full circle with a discussion of the internet and how radically research has transformed in the digital age. While in its first twenty years, the internet appears to have sparked at least as much unrest as it has managed to quell, perhaps once the dust settles it will bring with it a world united by a universal map of knowledge.
Robert Fox will be speaking again Wednesday, May 8th at 4:00 and on Friday, May 10th at 12:00 in the MU Journey Room. I would highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity to hear from such an engaging lecturer while we are lucky enough to have him on our campus.
*Laura Cray is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Science at Oregon State University.