The International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID)


W. Boyd Rayward

Published in Encyclopedia of Library History,
edited By Wayne A. Wiegand and Don G. Davis, Jr.
(New York: Garland Press,1994), pp. 290-294.

The International Federation for Information and Documentation(FID) was created in Brussels in 1895 as the International Institute of Bibliography(IIB) by two lawyers, Paul Otlet(1868-1944) and Henri La Fontaine(1854-1943). A remarkably adaptive organisation, it has gone through a number of changes of name that reflect changes of conceptualisation both of the field in which it operates and the way in which it should operate in this field. In 1931 it became the International Institute for Documentation (IID); in 1937 it became the International Federation for Documentation; and in 1988 it became the International Federation for Information and Documentation (but is still known as FID).

The collaboration between the two founders began in the early 1890's. In 1893 they transformed the bibliographical section of the Société des études socales et politiques, in which they were both active, into an International Institute of Sociological Bibliography. The following year Otlet obtained a copy of Melvil Dewey's Decimal Classification and in March 1895 he wrote to Dewey seeking permission to translate the classification and to use it for bibliographical purposes.

The two friends were Inspired by the possibilities for the standardisation of subject coding that they could see in the Decimal Classification. They had also made another discovery -- the 5x3 inch (or 125x75 mm) card. This presented to them the possibility of continuous interfiling into a bibliography of entries having a standard format and the easy correction of errors as they were discovered. Otlet and La Fontaine now determined to seek assistance to a universal bibliography under the aegis of a new international organisation. Drawing on their considerable influence in the Belgian government -- La Fontaine was a Senator in the parliament while Otlet's father, who had himself been a Senator, was also an important financial and industrial figure -- they obtained official patronage for an international conference to consider these matters.

The International Conference on Bibliography assembled in Brussels from the 2nd to 5th September 1895. It created an International Institute of Bibliography(IIB) to study matters of classification and the international organisation of bibliography generally. An International Office of Bibliography(OIB), an institutional headquarters for the Institute, was set up as a quasi-official agency of the Belgian government. Its task was to develop what was called the Répertoire Bibliographique Universel, a universal bibliography on cards arranged in the classified subject order of the Decimal Classification. Dewey gave Otlet and LaFontaine permission to translate and expand the classification as necessary for bibliographic purposes and agreed to become Vice President of the Institute.

There followed an extraordinary series of developments in the period before the First World War. The Universal Bibliographic Repertory, what today is called a database, grew to more than 11 million entries. An international search service, operated through the mails, was set up and led to some analysis of search strategies and the problem of pricing. By 1912 aver 1500 requests for information were being received a year. In 1906 a pictorial database was created. Called the Répertoire Iconographique Universel it was intended to be a pictorial counterpart to the bibliographic database and was organised according to the same principles. In 1907 a Répertoire Encyclopédique des Dossiers was developed. In this, brochures, pamphlets,periodical and newspaper articles along with other kinds of documents were assembled to give a substantive,"encyclopedic" dimension to the repertory.

What became known as the Universal Decimal Classification (or the Brussels Expansion of Dewey), a software package used for subject access to the bibliographic and other data bases set up at the OIB, was elaborated by the wide-ranging international collaboration of a large group of scholars, some of them Nobel Prize winners. A procedure for number compounding using signs of association and auxiliary schedules was developed, making the UDC the first great faceted classification. Various parts of the classification were issued between 1896 and the appearance of the first complete edition. This was a huge volume of over 2000 pages published in the period 1904 to 1907.

The Bulletin of the Institute was issued from 1895. It appeared steadily until 1911, and, after a hiatus ,again in 1914. It is a major journal in which important studies of the Decimal Classification, the theory of what Otlet began to call "Documentation", the international statistics of printing, and the bibliographic applications of microphotography, among a wide range of other matters of bibliographical importance, were reported. Conference of the Institute were held in 1897, 1900, 1908 and 1910. Papers given at these meetings and the proceedings were usually published in the Bulletin, as well as being issued separately in substantial volumes in the case of the 1908 and 1910 conferences. The Office of Bibliography also embarked on an ambitious programme of bibliographical publishing.

Very early the Institute realised the importance of having national offices or branches in other countries. The first such sections, and the only ones effectively until after the War, were the Bureau Bibliographique de Paris and the Concilium Bibliographicum in Zurich. The latter, directed by an American, Herbert Haviland Field, was extremely important in developing some of the science divisions of the UDC and in publishing important periodical scientific bibliographies in such a way that they could be incorporated directly into the RBU.

After 1905 a series of major expansions occurred in the OIB which gradually transformed it into a nucleus of a centre of general internationalism. First among the developments was the creation of an Office Central des Associations Internationales and the mounting in collaboration with the Société belge de Sociologie of a extensive survey of international organisation in general.

The following year a Bibliothèque Collective des Associations et Institutions Scientifiques et Corportives was founded. When the library was officially opened about eighteen months later, the number of participating bodies, mostly international associations with their headquarters in Brussels, had grown from six to twenty-five. By 1914 the number was 62.

In 1906 the first of a number of specialised information services was introduced. This was the Office international de Documentation technique. It was followed in 1907 by similar offices for hunting, fisheries, and polar regions and one for aeronautics in 1908. Active only for a few years and then only in a token way, these offices represented an attempt to realise practically new forms of information service the desirability of which Otlet and his colleagues had become theoretically convinced.

In 1909 Otlet and La Fontaine co-edited with Alfred Fried the Annuaire de la Vie interntionale. This directory had been started by Fried in 1904. It was now enormously expanded as a result of the survey mentioned above. (A subsequent edition was published in 1910-11 ) Above all was the 1910 World Congress of International Associations at which the Union of International Associations was founded. Another even larger and more grand congress of the international associations was held in 1913 and planning for a third in 1915 was interrupted by the War. When the Union of International Associations, which essentially became defunct in 1924, was revived after the Second World War one of its major functions was to continue the long suspended publication of the Annuaire, now called the Yearbook of International Associations

At the 1910 congress a resolution had been passed that the Belgian government sponsor the creation of an international museum to hold and develop as its collections exhibits of the associations and countries at the Brussels World Fair then underway. The government made part of the Palais du Cinquantenaire available for the purpose. This became the base of what was soon called the Palais Mondial, a vast centre of internationalism. It was planned eventually to centralise in it the bibliographical services of the OIB, the International Library, the International Museum, secretarial and publishing services for the associations, and, ultimately, if Otlet and La Fontaine's hopes were realised, an International University.

All of these services and the organisational arrangements needed for them were expressions of Otlet's gradually widening and deepening ideas about the nature of what he called "documentation". He was convinced that if knowledge were to be effectively disseminated and used new kinds or international agencies were needed, new kinds of highly standardised information handling methods had to be adopted and international agreements had to be forged to create a worldwide system of documentary communication.

During the War, the "Institutes" of the Palais Mondial were kept open by the Secretary, Louis Masure, though in the nature of things there was not much activity. Otlet spent the war years in neutral Europe, La Fontaine in the United States. After the War all of the enterprises associated with the Office and Institute of Bibliography were brought together as planned in the left wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire with the other collections of the Palais Mondial. In 1920 a Quinzaine International (or International Fortnight) was held (others were held in 1921, 1922, and 1924). Conferences of the IIB and UIA took place along with the first session of what was rather grandiosely referred to as an International University, though it was really no more than a high-powered summer school. Patronage of the recently founded League of Nations was requested for the venture but was not forthcoming.

At first apparently successfully making the transition from the nineteenth century and the War, the Palais Mondial soon found itself in trouble. Support from the League of Nations and, after 1922, its Institute for International Cooperation, much desired, was withheld. An unstable and politically and financially troubled Belgian government also gradually withdrew its support. In 1922 it resumed occupancy of the parts of the Palais du Cinquantenaire it had made available for the Palais Mondial for a commercial exhibition. It did this again in 1924. In 1934 it effectively closed the Palais Mondial completely, only to admit this was an error just before the Second World War broke out, whereupon new locations were provided by the Ville de Bruxelles.

It was now clear to the supporters of the IIB that something had to be done to rescue it from the imbroglio of the Palais Mondial. In 1921 a young Dutchman, Frits Donker Duyvis, had begun to work with the Belgians on a revision of the UDC, which had not been properly re-examined since the first complete edition in 1907. In many areas, but especially the scientific and technical ones, it was by now badly out of date. Duyvis became secretary of an International Committee for the Decimal Classification to spearhead this revision. In 1924, at a meeting in the Hague chaired by La Fontaine but dominated by Duyvis and his Dutch colleagues, the statutes of the IIB were revised to emphasise national organisations as the effective members of the institute and to de-emphasise the centralised services associated with the bibliographic repertory (unavailable for consultation in Brussels and unrealistically conceived) in the Institute's work. These reforms were followed up in 1928 and 1929 under the presidency of Alan Pollard, an Englishman who with S.C.Bradford had created the British Society for International Bibliography in 1927 to be what Bradford called a "daughter society" of the IIB. At the 1928 meeting of the Institute Duyvis was elected third Secretary-General and, an energetic young man of 34 compared to Otlet who was now 60 and La Fontaine who was 74, became the dominant figure in the Institute.

Henceforth the Belgians and the centre in Brussels, a very imperfect, ill-supported institutional nucleus of international services and collections, had little importance in the IIB's work. It continued to exist and to be the main focus of Otlet's activities. The OIB after all was still a legally constituted, semi-official governmental entity only dissolved in 1980 when its assets were transferred to the Bibliothèque Royale. The collections of the Palais Mondial or Mundaneum on the other hand were absorbed into the Centre de Lecture publique de la Communaute française centred in Liège only in 1983.

After 1931, then, the IIB began to function much more systematically and regularly as any other international organisation. Its work was now mainly related to its annual conferences, the publication of a bulletin (Documentatio Universalis 1930-32, edited in Brussels, IID Communicationes 1933-39 and then FID Communicationes following the Institute's name changes, edited in the Hague), and the revision of the full French edition of the UDC. This was much delayed. While printing actually began in 1926, the work was not finished until 1932. Complete German and English editions were also begun at this time under the aegis of the Deutscher Normanausschuss in the first instance and the British Society for International Bibliography and ASLIB in the second (after the Second World War this was taken over by the British Standards Institution).

In the period of the 1930's the IID became very much concerned with issues of documentary reproduction, especially using microfilm. While pioneering studies and the development of prototype machines go back to the work in 1906 and later of Otlet and Robert Goldschmidt, a new widespread international interest in improving film, film processing, cameras, and reading machines made the whole area a volatile and exciting one with potentially profound implications for information services.

In 1931 the Institute's name was changed after debate sparked by a report by Jean Gerard on the recently established Union française des Organismes de Documentation. In 1937 Gerard planned in Paris a vast conference on the international organisation of documentation. The conference was grandiosely named the Congrès Mondial de Documentation Universel. Its major outcome was to confirm the viability of the IID as the key international body in its field. The IID now changed its name again in order to emphasise that it functioned as an international federation of national organisations and international associations. It seemed that it had been able to satisfy the international community that it could conform to the various organisational and programmatic desiderata that had emerged after several years of soul-searching and conflict within the IID itself and of more broadly based debate with Gerard, the Paris Institute and others outside it.

La Fontaine died in 1943, Otlet in 1944. It was therefore left to Donker Duyvis to revive the FID after the War. The first post-war conference of FID was held in Paris in 1946 with strong international representation. The Englishman, Charles leMaistre, was nominated as President to replace J.Alingh Prins, Donker Duyvis's superior in the dutch Patent Office, who had been in office since 1931. A process for revision of FID's statutes was introduced. The work of the organisation was formalised in a variety of committees whose activities date back for the most part to the late 1930's. A Commission de Redaction de la Périodique was also set up to oversee the publication of the FID's journal now re-titled Revue de la Documentation/Review of Documentation.

Most important of all was the close relations that were at once set up with UNESCO. E.J. Carter, the Head of the Libraries Section, encouraged FID to apply for grants for various tasks. He also encouraged FID and IFLA to consider their relationship and possible avenues of cooperation.

The post-war history of FID has yet to be written. When it is it will be in part a study of the vicissitudes of the emerging professionalisation of FID as an international organisation. A major step along these lines had to be taken when Donker Duyvis retired in 1959 (he died in 1961). Like Otlet before him, he had become the memory, the personal hub of communication, the history, the anchor of the organisation. He also largely determined the ways in which the organisation's meagre resources would be deployed during his tenure of office. Not surprisingly the UDC remained a primary concern. He had no obvious successor and the organisation was confronted with all the usual issues of how to provide arrangements that in a leadership succession would ensure both organisational stability and flexibility.

The "modern" history of the FID will require a study of its formal structure as reflected in the periodic revision of its Statutes, beginning with those adopted in 1948. It has had to struggle, as all organisations must, with questions of changing purpose and function. These have received occasionally ambitious expression in long term plans and other formal planning documents. Its broad objectives have also found expression in an evolving committee structure and its changing relationship to, and use of, its national members, many of which at various times have assumed administrative responsibility for the work of particular committees and their publications. The creation of the regional commissions (for Latin America and Oceania) and the achievements possible through them will be of particular interest.

The historian will have to examine the personnel of the organisation and how they have put their stamp on it. The post-war presidents number some powerful and influential personalities. Most were in office for a period of years and undertook planning and other exercises that in some way reflected their sense of what FID was and ought to become. The critical post of Secretary-General has been filled on a number of occasions since the time of Donker Duyvis in a way that can only be described as problematical. When we have a proper perspective on these times, a study of such administrative matters will illuminate the fiscal and organisational dilemmas of the contemporary FID, and the inevitable problems that arise in such an organisation between President, Council (whose members are spread over the globe) and a permanent official.

It will of course be necessary to assess the various achievements of FID. Here the problems of changing attitudes towards the UDC will be central. The historian of FID will have to determine to what extent the UDC has been negatively identified with the FID and how this may have interfered with its ability to achieve its more general goals. He or she equally will have to determine the extent to which this long-lived, massive, widely translated but imperfect tool of information management and control has provided FID with an important product that has helped retain interest and commitment in the organisation.

Also of necessary to any historical understanding of the development and achievements of the modern FID is FID's relationship to other international organisations. It has gradually been accredited to a great many inter-governmental organisations, the earliest and most important of which is UNESCO, and has obtained observer status or formal membership in a number of non-governmental organisations. Some of these, especially the International Federation of International Associations, act in fields closely related to those of the FID. This presents interesting questions of how FID's mission and its international support have been negotiated both internally and externally. It is one of the longest lived non governmental organisations and as such presents important historical challenges.


Bradford,S.C. "Fifty Years of Documentation,"in Documentation by S.C.Bradford. London:Crosby Lockwood and Sons, 1953.

Donker duyvis,F. "The International Federation for Documentation," Journal for Documentary Reproduction, 3(September 1940):176-190.

Otlet,Paul. International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge: selected essays of Paul Otlet translated and edited by W.Boyd Rayward. Amsterdam: Elsevier.1990.

Rayward, W. Boyd. The Universe of Information: the Work of Paul Otlet for international organisation and documentation. FID Publication 520;. Moscow: VINITI,1976.

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