'The times are wrong':
: Paul Otlet, modernist anachronism or prophetic knowledge architect of the postmodern?

  • Richard George Espley

Student thesis: Master's ThesisMaster of Economic and Social Studies


This study sets out to critically re-evaluate the legacy of Paul Otlet (1868-1944), pioneering and boundlessly ambitious architect of knowledge organization systems, and the manner in which it has been reclaimed in the last twenty years. Specifically, it explores a fundamental tension in the literature between portrayals of Otlet as an arch positivist, and as a presciently postmodern author anticipating hypertext and the attendant dissolution of the integrity and objective significance of the text.

Proceeding through a systematic review of the literature, and a wider text analysis, the presentation of Otlet as prescient sage has its validity and motivations interrogated. This reveals a latent championing of the positivist tradition, identified and lamented in contemporary library research by many critics, dressed in the superficial trappings of the postmodern but out meaningfully investigating its concomitant epistemology. By extension, this reveals library and information science’s problematic relationship both with its own history and, arguably, its disjunction with the wider cultural and intellectual context of the social sciences and humanities, at least powerfully influenced by postmodern ideas.

Attempting to set the underlying positivist tradition to one side, along with the figure of Otlet himself, a more radical synthesis of the subject is attempted via the insights of postmodernism, ironically introduced into the discourse by champions of Otlet’s continued relevance. Influenced particularly by the works of Roland Barthes, this approach releases Otlet’s text into a borderless, contingent environment where the certainties which he laboured to record recede. However, in the process, Otlet’s bibliographic repertories become empowered to participate in a plethora of new knowledge creation possibilities. Similarly, a future for the library is suggested where its ends become the immersion of the reader in a self-led exploration of a world of text unmarked by the library’s subjective judgment
Date of Award2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorPauline Rafferty (Supervisor)


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