Decades before the creation of the World Wide Web, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine envisaged a paper archival system of the world’s information. They built a giant international documentation centre called Mundaneum, with the goal of preserving peace by assembling knowledge and making it accessible to the entire world. For us at Google, this mission sounds familiar.
The two Mundaneum founders met in 1895 and created the modern library universal decimal classification system, building from John Dewey’s early work. When La Fontaine won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913 for his work as an activist in the international peace movement, he invested his winnings into the Mundaneum project, which was already underway. La Fontaine and Otlet collected 3-by-5 inch index cards to build a vast paper database which eventually contained some 16 million entries, covering everything from the history of hunting dogs to finance. The Belgian government granted them space in a government building and Otlet established a fee-based research service that allowed anyone in the world to submit a query via mail or telegraph. Inquiries poured in from all over the world.
World War II and the deaths of La Fontaine in 1943 and Otlet in 1944 slowed the project. Although many of these archives were stored away, some of them in the Brussels subway, volunteers kept the dream alive. In 1998, Belgium’s French community government revived the Mundaneum’s memory, bringing most of the archives to a beautiful Art Deco building in the city of Mons.
That brings us to today. The Prime Minister came to our office to announce a major partnership with the Mundaneum and the University of Ghent. Google will sponsor and partner in both the upcoming exhibition at the Mundaneum headquarters in Mons and a speaker series on Internet issues at the Mundaneum and the University of Ghent. Web pioneers Louis Pouzin and Robert Cailliau are already scheduled to speak.
Mundaneum will use Google to present and promote its conferences and exhibitions. It has also constructed an online tour of its dazzling premises. At today’s event in the Google Brussels office, Prime Minister Di Rupo said he hopes that the Google-Mundaneum cooperation becomes a “wonderful forum for experimentation.” Di Rupo himself is passionate about the Mundaneum; as mayor of Mons, he was instrumental in preserving the archive.
If information was important a century ago, it is even more important in the 21st century. In his remarks, the Prime Minister made the connection between the past and the future, and called on Belgium to embrace the digital economy. We showed him our recently-launched Belgian version of Street View. In Belgium, the Internet accounts for 2.5 percent of GDP—and its contribution is expected to grow by more than 10 percent a year for the next five years. “If all our companies could take better advantages of these new technologies, its sure that our exports would get a boost,” Di Rupo said.
Our partnership with Mundaneum is part of a larger project to revive the memory of Europe’s computing pioneers. Europe played a crucial role in the invention of computers and the Internet, yet all too often has forgotten its innovators. Last year marked the 60th anniversary of LEO, the world’s first business computer, built by J.Lyons & Co, a leading British food manufacturer at the time that also ran a famous chain of tea shops. This past December, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the formal recognition of Ukraine’s Sergey Lebedev’s pioneering MESM project. We’ve also given our support to help restore Bletchley Park, the site of the U.K.’s wartime codebreaking and home of Colossus, the world’s first electronic programmable computer.
Now we’re moving to the heart of Europe. “This is a beautiful story between Google and us, which allows allows us to recognize the the memory of the Mundaneum,” says the Mundaneum’s director Jean-Paul Deplus. For Google, it’s just as exciting to rediscover our own roots.
Posted by William Echikson, External Relations, Brussels