You will (almost) never find a link to a Wikipedia article in the pages of EN-Genius. We regard that site and its contents as a laudable goal for knowledge, but one that is permanently damaged by the ability of any one and everyone to modify its contents. That was clearly shown by Stephen Colbert when he has caused problems on the site, spectacularly so when he decided to believe that George Washington never kept slaves and that his viewers could edit any entry about elephants to indicate that the population had tripled. He was blocked from the site in what seemed to be a search for additional publicity for Wikipedia.
But what of the multitude of other errors that are out there? It is like reading a newspaper story in which you are familiar with the details; the inaccuracies always annoy, but you doubtless don’t spend all that much effort in trying to correct them. With Wikipedia, I find the same: when I know the people, or the technology, or the place, the errors and deliberate slants are excruciatingly painful. Correcting those things is only a temporary fix, however, because someone else can come right along and ‘fix’ them all over again.
What the site does is to try and satisfy our human desire for knowledge and with resources like Wikipedia or Google (or even Alta Vista, although Wikipedia says that it went away in 2010 – but it didn’t) you should never be more than a few seconds away from finding the currency used in Borneo (the Indonesian Ringgit) or the average number of spots on a leopard (though not a quantative question, as each pattern is different – leopards do change their spots!). Long before the World Wide Web, however, a Belgian tried to put together a world of information, most of it vetted by experts – like Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps – in a single place.
The man, Paul Otlet, was both a lawyer and librarian, and he dreamed of a collective brain that should almost certainly be thought of as the first search engine. It consisted, at one time, of sixteen million index The library, which he called the Mundaneum (‘of the world’), was originally housed in a grand building in the center of Brussels, and Otlet – together with a kindred spirit, Henri La Fontaine (a Nobel Laureate in 1913) – wanted to collect all the books that had ever been printed, with them all interlinked. Each index card could list a multitude of information about the book with links to other relevant texts: certainly the original hypertext!
Otlet had a strange upbringing. He was born in 1868, and his mother died when he was just three. His father kept him out of school because he believed that the classroom stifled the abilities of a child. Eventually, after home schooling with tutors, his father – who made the family extremely well off selling city tram cars – allowed him to go to secondary school, where he spent a lot of his time reading the catalogs in the library. His father forced him to study law, but books won over after he had been called to the bar, and he became a librarian.
His first ideas for the Mundaneum came in 1895, but it was not until 1910 that the project became real and it grew just about as fast as technology would allow. Queries would come in from around the world – mostly by telegraph, but also by mail – and the answers would be found, sometimes after months of searching, and sent back to the questioner. By 1934 he had conceived of what he called electric telescopes that would allow browsing of documents, images, and media files, and how people could share these resources and send messages to one another; even that those with common interests could share sections of his network, which he called a réseau (used to describe a network of lines marked in astronomical photographs, or the grid pattern in the net used in lace making).
Otlet was fascinated by how wireless could be used in his réseau, and even contemplated the future television could hold for distribution of it. Quite the visionary!
The German invasion of Belgium in 1940 destroyed the potential future of the Mundaneum, and most of the files were ripped out and replaced by a gallery of stolen Nazi art. A lot of the material has been recovered from attics and cellars, however, and is now being housed in a ten-year-old replacement for the museum in the Gothic city of Mons. Eventually it is expected that about 12km of material will have been restored and, even further in the future, it is hoped that it will all be digitized and available on today’s web.
Otlet himself had become disillusioned a while before the war when his backers pulled their financial support from his project and he died in poverty in 1944.
For a man who so loved books, to be able to see how they would be replaced by things electronic, would have been quite remarkable, and Otlet should certainly be revered as the inventor of the analog version of the web...and a lot more trustworthy than Wikipedia.