The Documentation Movement

The Documentation Movement: Creation, Innovation and Legacy


 The founding of the International Federation for Information and Documentation gave rise to the documentation movement of the late 19th Century.  Those involved in the movement were concerned with what they saw as inadequacies in the collection, organization, and dissemination of the world’s knowledge.  As a result, the documentalists developed innovative methods to address the shortcomings they saw in information collection and retrieval systems.  The innovations advanced by the documentalists not only created new techniques for the collection and retrieval of information, but also formed concepts that are important in information studies and technology today.

The late 19th century saw a rapid increase in the amount of scientific and technical literature.  The accelerated pace in which publications were being produced created the need to find new techniques to manage the expanding body of knowledge.[1]  The new systems for information collection needed to address the issues of preserving, arranging, describing, retrieving, copying, and disseminating information.[2]  Traditional libraries could not address the new concerns of collection and retrieval.  They were slow to obtain new documents that did not follow conventional categories; they had not adopted more advanced processing methods and were inadequate in providing specialist information that users needed.[3]  The deficiency by libraries led to the creation of the International Federation for Information and Documentation and sparked the documentation movement.

In 1895, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine created the International Federation for Information and Documentation (then known as the International Institute of Bibliography) in Brussels, Belgium.[4] The purposes for the creation of the FID was to collect, preserve, and make accessible the entire world’s information.  The collection included magazines, journals, photographs, and all kinds of ephemera that libraries typically did not collect.[5]  The monumental task of trying to amass the world’s knowledge not only necessitated the creation and innovation of new techniques and concepts, but also created the “documentation movement.” The new ideas created by this movement included the redefining of what constituted a “document,” the development of a new classification scheme and new methods for information collection and retrieval.

In order to set about collecting the world’s information—or documents—it was necessary for the documentalists to define what constituted a “document.”  Paul Otlet extended the definition of a “document” to include not only graphic and written records, but also three dimensional artifacts and objects bearing traces of human activity.  This definition included archaeological finds, educational games, works of art and objects not intended as communication.[6][7]  By redefining the meaning of “document,” Otlet was also redefining the meaning of “documentation.”  Documentation was a set of techniques created to manage documents (printed texts).  By asserting that “documents” were not limited to printed texts, Otlet was revolutionizing the collection and management of information.[8]  The term “documentation” took on a new meaning; it described what we now call Information Storage and Retrieval.[9] In order to facilitate this new form of information collection and dissemination, Otlet and La Fontaine developed a new classification scheme and methods to collect and retrieve information.

The acquisition of a copy of Melvil Dewey’s Decimal Classification inspired Otlet and La Fontaine to explore the possibility of developing a universal bibliography that could be organized using the Decimal Classification.[10]  The subsequent discovery of the 5×3 inch card also inspired the development of what Otlet called, “The Monographic Principle.”  Otlet’s principle called for the analytical isolation of major categories of information: facts, interpretation of facts, statistics and sources.  Once this information was collected into smaller parts—or “chunks”—it could then be catalogued and subdivided.[11]   The new classification scheme that Otlet and La Fontaine developed—the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC)—combined with standardized bibliographic entries, created the possibility of collaborative, continuous expansible repertoires, or “databases.”[12]  The UDC facilitated the expansion of the databases by serving as a form of “universal language;” words were replaced by characters, such as numbers, to represent the ideas classified.[13]   The international application of the UDC was paramount to the creation of several databases by colleagues of Otlet’s.  The UDC also made it possible for the different databases to be interrelated.[14] While the UDC and the standardization of bibliographic entries aided in the expansion of collected knowledge, that information was of no use if it could not be accessed. Otlet had to develop a system to also make the collected information accessible to users.

In order for users to access the large databases of information that were created by Otlet and La Fontaine’s FID, it was necessary to create a new method of information retrieval.  Otlet and La Fontaine managed to persuade the Belgian government to support their project and they were granted space in a government building form which to expand their databases, the Mundaneum.  Users from around the world were able to submit queries via mail or telegraph to the Mundaneum on various and diverse topics.[15]  A response to an inquiry by user consisted of retrieving the card that contained the information, reproducing it, and sending the user the copy.  The type of information collection and management at the Mondaneum addressed the issues that contemporary libraries had not.[16][17] By virtue of the UDC, the user could navigate from the bibliographic reference given to the full text or object.[18] Eventually, the Mondaneum became overwhelmed with the amount of paper, cards, and cabinets needed to house the paper based database.  This led Otlet to design alternative technologies to manage the material overload.  Eventually, Otlet realized that an alternative to paper had to be developed.  Since no such alternative existed, Otlet invented it.  He wrote about the possibility of electronic media storage and retrieval by means of telecommunication.[19][20] Unfortunately for Otlet, just as his idea was coming to fruition, the Mondaneum encountered financial difficulties and Otlet had to close it to the public. A few years after closing, much of the collection was destroyed by the German occupation forces, and Otlet and La Fontaine died soon after.[21]  Despite the deaths of the founders of the documentalists movement, the legacy of the concepts and techniques they developed continues to be a vital part of information collection and retrieval.

One of the most everlasting contributions of the documentalists movement is the redefinition of “documentation.”  Prior to Otlet’s Traité de Documentation, “documentation” dealt primarily with the management of texts.  In his Traité, Otlet extends documentation to address the problems of creating and improving systems for organizing all knowledge.  “Documentation” is the precursor to what we today is known as Information Storage and Retrieval.  It is also not too much of a stretch to treat Otlet’s Traité as one of the first information science texts.[22]

Otlet and his colleagues in the documentation movement also contributed to the development of databases and software.  The large collections of knowledge that were being created by the FID were called “repertories” by Otlet, but today we recognize that they were precursors to what we know as databases.[23]  But, as with all databases, there is a need to create a program to navigate and access the database.  Otlet and La Fontaine created the UDC, their software program, in order to allow users to search and find information within the FID databases.[24]

Another contribution of the documentalists to modern information studies is the development of the predecessor of the modern-day hyperlink.  The databases created by the FID consisted of “chunks” of information organized by a system of links and navigational devices that allowed the user to move from the bibliographic reference to the full text or object.[25]   The UDC and FID databases functioned as a paper based hyperlink system.

Additional contributions of the documentalists movement include forerunners to modern day concepts such as the search engine, social networks, and the web.  The Mundaneum functioned as an analog search engine.  Otlet and his colleagues invented the concept of a user searching and retrieving information from a database.[26]  In Otlet’s later years, he developed concepts that discarded paper based databases in favor of electronic and telecommunication.  One of the concepts he foresaw was the development of social networks.  By discarding paper and using new technologies, users could trade messages, participate in discussions, and work together to collect and organize documents.[27]  Otlet also outlined a plan for a global network of “electric telescopes” that would allow users to search and browse databases filled with millions of interlinked documents, images, and audiovisual files.  He called this concept “réseau,” which can be translated to mean “network” or “web.”[28]  Otlet had developed and foreseen concepts that are deeply part of our social fabric.

Perhaps one of the most humorous and ironic legacies of the documentation movement concerns the standardization of index cards and sheets of paper.  Otlet and his colleagues saw the standardization of index cards and sheets of paper as vital to the success of their databases.  By standardizing their material, it would facilitate their storage, management, and access.  It is because of their efforts that index card is 3×5, sheets of paper are 8×11, and that sheets of paper fit perfectly inside folders in filing cabinets.[29]  As much as Otlet foresaw the eventual demise of paper based databases, analog methods of storage are still very much a part of contemporary society.

The foundation of the FID  gave rise to the documentation movement of the late 19th century.  The efforts of those involved in the movement concerned the creation, innovation, and management of new forms of information collection and retrieval in order to address the shortfalls of the libraries of their time.  Their efforts resulted in the creation of information studies and the development of concepts and technologies that are in place today.

This essay was written for IS 260, Information Structures, taught by Gregory Leazer during Fall Quarter 2011.



[1] Buckland, Michael K., “What is a ‘Document?’” Journal of the American Society for Information Science, (September 1997) pg. 804

[2] Buckland, pg. 804

[3] Rayward, W. Boyd, “Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science, (May 1994) pg. 243

[4] “The International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID),” Rayward, W. Boyd, accessed November 4, 2011,

[5] Wright, Alex, “The Web Time Forgot,” The New York Times, pg. 2, June 17, 2008, (accessed November 4, 2011

[6] Buckland pg. 805

[7] Buckland pg. 807

[8] Buckland pg. 805

[9] Rayward, pg. 238

[10] Rayward, pg. 238

[11] Rayward, pg. 237

[12] Rayward, pg. 238

[13] Rayward, pg. 241

[14] Rayward, pg. 239

[15] Wright, pg. 2

[16] Wright, pg.2

[17] Buckland, pg. 805

[18] Rayward, pg. 240

[19]Wright, pg. 2

[20] Rayward, pg. 245

[21] Wright, pg. 3

[22] Rayward, pg. 238

[23] Rayward, pg. 240

[24] “The International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID)”

[25] Rayward, pg. 240

[26] Wright, pg. 2

[27] Wright, pg. 3

[28] Wright, pg. 1

[29] Rayward, pg. 242