Fun Fact: Belgium created a precursor to the internet

The internet is such a critical part of our daily life that many wouldn’t know what to do without it. Whether you want to find the train schedules, learn how to fix a zip, or browse a biography on Wikipedia’s vast library, all the information we need can be ascertained. Although our modern digital age has ease of access to the information, people in the past did have alternatives. One such database was so large it is purported to have all the world’s knowledge – on paper.

The town of Mons is home to the Mundaneum and served as the precursor to Wikipedia, Google and even the internet. The idea began in the late 19th century when two Belgian lawyers shared the idea of collecting the world’s information and classifying it with their new system: the Universal Decimal Classification – which is still used all over the world today.

Henri La Fontaine, one of pacifism’s most important figures and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Paul Otlet, recognised as the father of information science with his 1934 plans for a global computing network that would allow people to search through millions of documents.

Paul Otlet
Paul Otlet in the Brussels Mundaneum

The two men envisioned this project to create a “world city”. To open networks and relationships with Europe’s intellectuals through the compiling of knowledge; aiming to create a global unity that transcended borders and foster peace. More than 12 million 3in x 5in index cards and documents are found in the Mundaneum in Mons, and they include everything from science, history, arts and even something reminiscent of today’s information system – erotica.

The original Mundaneum was in Brussels in 1910, but upon the Nazi invasion of Belgium in 1940, the Mundaneum was damaged and much of the material lost. The museum was then moved in 1974 to an Art Deco department store in Mons and reopened in 1998.

Mons Mundaneum
Today’s Mons Mundaneum – © F. Raevens

The building now functions as a museum that has space for exhibitions and lectures – all the while still having a vast underground archives centre that contains the original index cards, the founders’ collections; newspapers, postcards, posters and journals – which are reminiscent of the era in which it was open.

Google formally paid tribute to the Mundaneum in 2012 for the symbolic value it held and even created a partnership with its archive centre.