The Mundaneum — A blog about blogging

The Mundaneum in Mons. (CC BY-SA, Stefaan Van der Biest/ Wikimedia Commons)
The Mundaneum in Mons. (CC BY-SA, Stefaan Van der Biest/ Wikimedia Commons)

This blog is a bit meta – it is about how and why I write a weekly parsha blog. But since all my other blogs first start with something completely unrelated and then make a (sometimes very tenuous) leap to the Torah portion, I thought I’d do the same thing this time. The Mundaneum that I’ve written about is really interesting, but if you don’t have time to read through the entire blog, please skip to the end — I would very much like your feedback, thoughts and comments.

In 1913, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a Belgian lawyer, Henri La Fontaine. He served as president of the International Peace Bureau from 1907 until his death in 1943. According to the Nobel Prize website, “When he was awarded the Peace Prize in 1913, he was the effective leader of the peace movement in Europe.”

La Fontaine was an activist in many other areas, too. In 1892, he and his sister Léonie La Fontaine were instrumental in forming the Ligue du Droit des Femmes (the League for Women’s Rights), a group advocating for women’s suffrage.

In 1894, he was elected as a senator — one of the first socialists to hold office in Belgium. He remained in the Senate until 1932, rising to become vice president of the Senate, and returned briefly in 1935-6.

The Independent once uncharitably described La Fontaine as, “An obsessive, bearded vegetarian with two failed marriages and a Nobel Peace Prize.”

Portrait of Henri La Fontaine made by photographer Stern. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

I suppose, with hindsight, we must admit that his obsessiveness and activism failed – he lived long enough to see both World War I and World War II, so his dream of European peace was utterly shattered. But that doesn’t mean that his vision was wrong.

The underlying belief behind almost all La Fontaine’s endeavors was that shared knowledge would lead to peace, and to that end he created the Mundaneum.

La Fontaine teamed up with Paul Otlet who, according to Charlotte Dubray, the director of the Mundaneum, “had become persuaded that the dissemination of knowledge will lead to universal peace.”

Otlet to work in an office built at his home following the closure of the Palais Mondial in June 1937. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

From this intersection of knowledge, documentation and pacifism emerged the original Mundaneum in Brussels in 1910.

The goal of the Mundaneum was to create a complete database of all knowledge and classify it in a way that would make it accessible to all. You can tell their vision was to change the globe from the institution’s original name — Palais Mondial (“world palace”).

Armed with millions of index cards and a small staff, Otlet and La Fontaine recorded as much information as they could – each fact on its own card and filed in a way to make it accessible to any knowledge seeker (index cards had become the standard way of cataloging libraries just a few years earlier thanks to Melvil Dewey).

In his book, International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge, Otlet wrote:

Organized on the basis just discussed, Universal Documentation through its collections and its various repertories would truly become a “World Memory.” This would not be limited to recording facts but would automatically and instantly permit their retrieval. It would be a vast intellectual mechanism designed to capture and condense scattered and diffuse information and then to distribute it everywhere it is needed.

The goal was not only to take individual, standalone datapoints of knowledge, but to integrate all human knowledge into a cohesive whole. Otlet also wrote:

In our minds we can envision the day when scientific publications, as a result of a coherent classification and the extreme divisibility of all of its elements, will be more and more integrated with other publications. At that time each substantive piece of information in its particular format will be no more than a part, a chapter, even a simple paragraph in the Universal Book created from day to day and constituting a vast documentary encyclopedia appropriate to our magnificent twentieth century.

Dubray summarized the deeper meaning and vision of the Mundaneum:

More than a traditional archival center, the Mundaneum’s situation reflects its double heritage. A physical heritage, that of archives and collections, but also a spiritual heritage, that of ideas of peace, of access to knowledge, of justice, of democracy, and of humanism that were championed by Otlet and La Fontaine throughout the whole of their lives.

Otley even envisaged a system of screens and wires, allowing the information to be shared with everyone around the world.

In 1940, the Nazis invaded Belgium and seized the Mundaneum. They destroyed thousands of boxes of index cards filled with facts, and turned the building into an exhibition of Third Reich art. After the war, what was left of the Mundaneum was transferred from one site to another. Today, the remnants of the Mundaneum are housed in a museum in Mons.

And that would have been the end of the story. Except that in the past few decades, the internet made it possible to renew La Fontaine and Otlet’s vision. But instead of index cards stored in a vast warehouse, now knowledge is contained in webpages, physically located in server farms around the world but accessible virtually to anyone with a computer or a phone.

Mini Wikipedia globe at the Wikimedia Foundation offices, San Francisco, California. (CC BY-SA, Lane Hartwell/ Wikimedia Commons)

On January 15, 2001, Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger

Wales has described the goal of Wikipedia in terms with which I think La Fontaine and Otlet would agree:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

Although there is no evidence that Wikipedia or the internet have contributed to world peace, as La Fontaine and Otlet envisaged, it has put unimaginably large quantities of information at our fingertips.

Did you know that Wikipedia has a “random article” button?

Go ahead and click it. I do regularly. The sheer quantity of information is staggering. You quickly discover that Wikipedia’s goal is to catalogue every landmark, river, border, town and interesting building; it also attempts to list all the animals, plants bacteria, viruses and who knows what else that ever lived; as well as every major sportsperson, writer, scientist, politician and philanthropist; and every significant musician, from Christian Bach to Chuck Berry, along with every album and often every track on that album; it also includes major battles, wars and treaties; along with every chemical element or compound, physical law or biological process.

Go on, I’ll wait while you click a bit more through some of the 6,000,000 pages (and that’s just in English. Wikipedia currently also has entries in 309 other languages).

PWN Encyclopedia. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Any Wikipedia research comes with a big caveat – there is no guarantee the entry is accurate or complete. Though that is equally true of any encyclopedia, which has greater limitations of size (there are only so many pages publishers will agree to print), bias (how do you hire experts on every subject who are impartial) and relevance (every other encyclopedia is out of date before it is even published). Wikipedia should not be relied upon completely, but it is quite possibly the best encyclopedia humanity has ever had.

And the beauty of the internet is that one can do more research after reading a Wikipedia entry without even getting up from the chair. Search engines provide so much information that the difficulty is how to sift through it all. There are sites that contain primary sources, such as the invaluable archive.org. And then you also have images, videos, audio and who knows what else, if you want to delve further into something interesting you read in the encyclopedia.

An 1817 painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting of a woman wearing a green dress embroidering in a green room with green curtains. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

A couple of years ago I was captivated by the idea of connecting some of these interesting facts on Wikipedia and the internet in general to the weekly Torah reading. Clearly, that is a mad, crazy idea. What could the history of the color green possibly have in common with Parshat Tazria or the Green Book with Parshat Beshalach? Not a lot, I suppose. And yet it nevertheless gave me a creative outlet to share some of the amazing facts I’ve discovered and some insights into Torah. And it turns out that sometimes looking at the parsha through the prism of an unrelated historical event gives a brand-new insight into the Torah.

I’ve been writing a weekly parsha blog on the Times of Israel for almost a year-and-a-half now, and I thought it would be a good idea to sum it all up.

Firstly, I have to thank The Times of Israel and particularly Anne Gordon for encouraging me (very persuasively) to start blogging. And for continual morale-boosting support from week to week.

It is a huge commitment to write a regular blog; but it is very rewarding. I would say it takes me on average about five hours to write each blog post, plus another hour or so to find and upload images, and insert italics, links and proofread one last time. And all that only starts after I’ve spent anywhere between a few minutes and a few days looking for an interesting fact that can somehow be connected to the Torah portion.

In addition to Wikipedia, I’m always looking for new ideas. There are so many great podcasts out there which I listen to when walking, cleaning, or trying to drown out the general household noise. These include my absolute all-time favorite The Constant: A History of Getting Things Wrong, and other brilliant shows such as No Such Thing as A Fish, The Memory Palace, 99 Percent Invisible, RadioLab, and many more. And the Reddit thread Today I Learned is amazing. I now read almost exclusively non-fiction, as I search for that new fact each week. As soon as one blog is written it is time to start thinking about the next one – though often I find a random fact first and then work out which portion I can connect it to).

I’ve written blog posts on my phone in the back of a car, on a bus, while waiting for the dentist, and while waiting in a hospital. I’m writing this blog post while sitting on a plane. But often I only manage to write it on Friday, instead of cleaning the house, adding extra stress to the Shabbat preparations.

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know who reads the blogs or how far they reach, but I keep bumping into people who’ve at least seen my name on the website. My most popular blog by far was about King Henry VIII and the Talmud, which was shared on Facebook over 200 times. Thank you to the many people from around the world and from such varied backgrounds for all your comments, feedback and emails.

Three times I have written a blog, only to have it nixed by my editorial committee. Once I wrote a blog only to be told I’d already written the same thing a few months earlier, so I had to do a massive rewrite.

I have so many ideas, but many of them don’t turn into blogs. Some of the ideas that didn’t make it (yet) include: Benjamin Lay, the 18th century vegetarian, anti-slavery Quaker dwarf, the 14th century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym and Arrhichion, who John Cleese said was the inspiration for the Black Knight.

This is a good opportunity to thank my team of editors – Tzvi, Romi, Michael, Shani, Miriam, and my dad. As well as to others who I have asked to read occasional blogs, or who volunteered to give me feedback. And most of all to my wife, Alit, who is not only my best and most trusted editor, but also puts up with me investing so much time in these blogs when there are far more useful things I could be doing (like cleaning the house and getting ready for Shabbat).

And if anyone has any ideas for future blogs I could write, or just some interesting facts (or feedback on what I’ve already written) please share them with me. You can also follow me or message me via my Facebook page.

La Fontaine and Otlet had visions of global knowledge leading to world peace. Wales and Sanger’s goal was to put information at people’s fingertips. My less lofty aim is to entertain you for a few minutes. And I consider myself lucky when my blogs allow you to think about something new or examining something old afresh.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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