Editor’s Note: Occasionally in studying HCI history, I have stumbled upon large topics that I was unaware existed. Perhaps
the most surprising has been the development of advanced information technologies, which preceded computers. In
some ways, the constraints imposed by those technologies forced deeper thinking about information itself. In this column,
Berkeley Professor Emeritus Michael Buckland describes the work of four dedicated creative pioneers.—Jonathan Grudin
As We May Recall:
Four Forgotten Pioneers
University of California, Berkeley | firstname.lastname@example.org
November + December 2009
Why recall forgotten pioneers?
Human-computer interaction is only one specific
kind of mediating interface. If we want a broader
understanding of interactions, we should be willing to think about other and earlier kinds of interfaces. Bibliographies are a kind of mediating interface between a reader and literature; there are
“soft” technologies such as categorization schemes
and indexing systems that mediate in both digital
and non-digital technologies, and people as intermediaries are, in a sense, interfaces.
The following four pioneers—interested in interfaces, from this very broad definition—have been
widely forgotten, until the recent revival of interest
in the history of the organization of information.
Paul Otlet (1868-1944), along with Henri La
Fontaine (1954-1943), was an idealistic Belgian
lawyer. He was a pacifist, a feminist, and an
internationalist. Otlet wanted to make the world
a peaceful, prosperous place by democratizing
information: He wanted to make all documents
in all genres, formats, and languages available
to everyone. Otlet had a vision of the Web long
before digital computers were available; in 1895,
he established an International Institute for
Bibliography to make it happen.
A wealthy wife enabled Otlet to focus on this
Institute, where he used the latest technology of
his day: standard catalog cards bearing standardized descriptive metadata for each and every
document. Published texts tend to be wordy,
repetitive, and duplicative, so Otlet promoted
a hypertextual approach whereby individual
statements of fact (micro-documents known as
“monographs”) were extracted from longer texts.
A semantic “web” expressed the topic of each
node, identified the documents relating to each
topic as well as the relationships among all top-
ics and, thereby, all documents. For the semantic relationships, Otlet, La Fontaine, and others
developed the Universal Decimal Classification—a
more powerful version of Melvil Dewey’s Decimal
Classification—that emphasized a faceted
approach somewhat anticipating relational database design. The principal index had reached 11
million cards by 1914 and a commercial literature
search service was established.
Otlet was very interested in new forms of the
“book,” meaning new information and communication technologies that could enable us to escape
the limitations of the printed codex. He and
Robert Goldschmidt invented microfiche in 1906
(about 72 microfilmed pages on rectangular sheets
of film, a format widely used later in the 20th century) and, later, a portable microfilm library. He
had ideas about how telecommunications could be
combined with workspaces and, already in 1925,
foresaw that people would be reading texts in
their own homes and on television screens instead
of visiting a library.
Otlet’s increasingly visionary schemes were
ultimately undermined by political changes, the
Great Depression, the Second World War, and
decreasing credibility. But as a pioneer, Otlet was
ahead of his time: The Internet, in its present
manifestation, bears a striking resemblance to his
Wilhelm Ostwald (1859-1932), a Nobel
Laureate, is far from forgotten, but his work on
information systems remains largely unknown.
Born in Riga, Latvia (at that time Russia), he
moved to Germany and became one of the founders of physical chemistry, receiving the Nobel
Prize in Chemistry in 1909.
In 1910, visiting the World Fair in Brussels,
he was inspired by Paul Otlet’s International