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Pressures of the present

Union of International Associations -- Virtual Organization: Paul Otlet's 100-year hypertext conundrum ? (Part #3)

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A further irony to this hypertext story is that -- in the best tradition of such historical riddles -- the hidden facets of this 'secret' were seemingly never revealed to those who worked at the UIA, over the many decades since its creation, or by those who developed its strategic objectives after Otlet's death. The secret was effectively embodied in the name of the UIA (see another exploration of this at and in its statutory objectives -- that have remained fundamentally unchanged since its creation. Of course, in the spirit of Umberto Eco again, one might choose to speculate on the possibility that the secret was passed on within the UIA in some special way.

The irony is however greater still in that in order to sustain its continuing role in the emerging information society -- as a source of international reference information on 'international associations' and their preoccupations -- the UIA has been progressively obliged to innovate and adapt in such a way as to exemplify the 'hidden' less tangible dimensions concealed by the enigma. This shift in awareness is indicated by the title of a pre-hypertext paper by a UIA staff member in 1977 on Knowledge Representation in a Computer-supported Environment (/knowrep_x_h_1). It might be said that to survive the UIA had to increase the consonance of its actions with the coherence of the implicit virtual dimensions that empowered it -- all unknowingly of course ! Thus, with respect to:

  • 'union': there have been increasing pressures on the UIA to find new ways to exemplify, through knowledge management, the integrity of the whole range of human activity expressed through 'international associations' (which remains its mandate) -- to render it comprehensible as a whole, notably in a way that is relevant to the increasing concerns of global governance;
  • 'international': in addition to the UIA's long-standing sensitivity to bridging differences that are basic to human rights, there have been increasing requirements for sensitivity across the conceptual boundaries of ideologies, disciplines and methodologies, as well as those across cultures and forms of knowledge;
  • 'associations': perhaps most ironic, the last 50-years have seen an ever-increasing investment by the UIA in explicit logical and functional links between organizations, between their profiled problems and/or strategies, between their values, and between understandings of human development. These are thus woven together in complex networks

These tendencies have come to fruition within the World Wide Web since much of its documentation (in electronic form since the 1970s), was already effectively organized as hypertext with a common meta-data structure. The multitude of explicit associative links became immediately 'clickable' when its databases were converted for web access from 1996 (see These now total some 500,000 documents and as many hyperlinks [*** check]. The UIA has modeled Otlet's vision in practice.

The UIA's Encyclopedia databases (problems, strategies) are now accessible over the web ( after recently being further augmented under a contract with the European Commission. Consistent with Otlet's vision, they are interlinked by hyperlinks with the databases on which the UIA has focused from its origin (organizations, biographies, bibliographies, meetings).

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