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4th February 2005

Information Culture of the Union of International Associations

a historical review

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Initially prepared in relation to the UIA's bid to manage the .ORG web domain


The UIA's claim to operate the .org registry derives from a coherent, consistent, evolving information strategy dating back over a century. This section gives a sense of this trajectory in order to demonstrate the strategic logic of its taking on the .org domain and enabling services to the .org community and beyond.

Interface orientation

The UIA has always operated at the interface between information, its organization and enabling the global community of associations to which this information is relevant. The UIA has a tradition of rapid response to new information technologies as an early adopter of: in-house computers (1972), word processing (1973), computer typesetting (1974), email (1979), meta-data structure (1984), LAN relational database operation (1985), automatic translation (1994), CD-ROM technology (1995), web technology (1996), hyperlink editing (1997), VRML (1998), inter-institutional data integration (1999), online web data services (2000), sonification (2000), XML (2001), SVG (2002).

Most recently innovation has focused on enabling web users to generate, reconfigure and print, from its databases, a multitude of network maps or to view/export such networks through third party packages (Decision Explorer, Netmap). Generically these innovations are possible at the UIA because of an in-house capacity to handle a variety of cross-platform and interface situations, and typified most basically by the early challenges of accented characters. In 1986, as an early example, the main UIA registry product received the UK HMSO Printing World Award for the most innovative application of computers to typesetting.

In the rapidly evolving period of ISP emergence, the UIA was the founding member 1997 of a cooperative, Agora, based in its own offices from which it provided Internet connectivity to the NGO community in Belgium through a T1 line. Agora was at that time the Belgian node of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). These facilities were absorbed in 1999 into XS4ALL, another community oriented ISP, that itself was absorbed into a corporate ISP that currently provides UIA connectivity and hosting of portions of its site. The online services have however been based in-house since their experimental origin in 1998.

The UIA was involved in the earliest stages of the UN-based Inter-Agency Group on Indexing and Documentation that resulted in the Macrothesaurus. The UIA's early expertise in information systems resulted in its involvement as reporter in two successive consultations in the early phases of the development of UN information systems (Acquisition and Organization of International Documentation, 1974; Utilisation of International Documentation, 1980). The UIA provided consulting expertise to UNESCO in 1984 with respect to the development of UNESCO's in-house country data system, followed by later consultations concerning the feasibility of sharing data with UNESCO.

Knowledge organization and networking

The original focus on information classification led to UIA involvement in the Committee on Conceptual and Terminological Analysis (COCTA) and the International Society for Knowledge Organization in the 1970s. Association with the early work on computer graphics, resulted in production of a film on Visualization of International Organization (1971). Two decades before the emergence of 'knowledge management' as a theme, a study on Knowledge representation in a computer-supported environment (1977) articulated much of the design philosophy of UIA information systems. Throughout the 1970s the UIA was a strong advocate to international NGOs of the new concept of organizational networking and its associated challenges [more]. It was a user of Murray Turoff's experimental Electronic Information Exchange System, funded by NSF, that became operational in 1976 as the great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities and promoted its significance for the community of non-profit organizations.
Throughout the 1970s the UIA was a strong advocate to international NGOs of the new concept of organizational networking and its associated challenges [more]. It was an early user of the experimental EIES email system funded by the National Science Foundation, that became operational in 1976 as the great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities, and promoted its significance for the community of non-profit organizations.

Promotion of networking technology

These different threads had led to contact in the 1970s with Douglas Engelbart at the ARPANET centre in Menlo Park (and even an offer to manage the centre). Engelbart was a key source of inspiration at the UIA, as elsewhere, for many concerned with the development of hypertext and associated graphics in support of knowledge navigation. Contact with that community was resumed through a UIA keynote speech to the Electronic Networking Association: Transformative conferencing: re-enchantment of networking through conceptware (San Francisco, 1990).

The UIA organized the first gathering in Europe of Internet cognoscenti from North America within the framework of a demonstration symposium at the World Future Studies Federation Conference on Science, Technology and the Future (Berlin, 1979) [more]

As an early response to the digital divide, the UIA was probably the first to demonstrate the potential of Internet technology in an African developing country -- within the framework of a meeting of the UN University (Dakar, 1979). In 1986 the UIA participated in the UN University's project on Information Overload and Information Underuse [more]. The intersect between its information management skills and international content resulted in an invitation (declined) to manage the '92' (international) domain of the International Standard Book Numbering (ISBN) system -- as was an analogous invitation to consider management of the .INT domain as first conceived. Registration in the Yearbook continues to be used, under certain circumstances, as a criterion for ascription of an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN).

Information on international organizations -- registry activity

At the beginning of the 20th century, with a very strong bibliographical focus, the UIA network of bodies maintained 11,000,000 card file records - portions of its archives now being held by Mundaneum (Mons), currently presented as being the first 'Internet on paper'. One of the UIA's founding personalities, Paul Otlet, was intimately involved in the development of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) that remains an alternative to the Dewey system. The other leading founder, Henri La Fontaine, received the Nobel Peace Prize (1913) for his efforts towards international organization through the UIA and associated bodies. In that period the documentation work of the UIA was closely associated with the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB) founded by Otlet and La Fontaine in 1895. This was subsequently transformed into the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID), which continues to as a focus for the UDC and founded in 1995 the Global Information Alliance (GIA) -- a strategic alliance of NGOs in information, communication and knowledge to serve the world community. The UIA continues to maintain strong links with the library world, notably through a 20-year relationship with its publisher K G Saur Verlag (Munich) one of the principal suppliers of international reference works and itself closely associated with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).

Following its pre-war (very 'thick') registry activity on the international organizations (currently being released in electronic form), the UIA produced in 1923 the first registry of all previous resolutions of international conferences - the last occasion on which this task proved possible to any institution until the UIA adopted its current approach of registering problems and strategies recognized by the international community. In that same period (1922-27) it operated an International University for international association executives, participating as students and staff.

In the 1920s, the UIA transferred its registry activity on international organizations to the League of Nations whose establishment the UIA had significantly promoted, notably through La Fontaine.

Hypertext inspiration

Historians of hypertext have recently acknowledged [more] the prophetic description of a Universal Documentation Network by UIA's founder, Paul Otlet, as part of his work on the nature of transdisciplinarity, which concluded, in 1935:

Man would no longer need documentation if he were assimilated into an omniscient being - as with God himself. But to a less ultimate degree, a technology will be created acting at a distance and combining radio, X-rays, cinema and microscopic photography. Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts. (Monde, pp. 390-391, trans., emphasis added.)

In this light, there is even a speculation that the UIA was itself designed by Otlet and his network as a form of virtual organization [more]. Indeed the 21st century interpretation of the UIA name, points to the challenge of discovering new insights into forms of 'union' that are required to relate conceptual or social 'associations' of any kind across 'international' boundaries that may be cultural or sectoral as much as geopolitical [more].

Recent registry activity

In 1950 the UIA retook responsibility for registering international organizations in its Yearbook of International Organizations. Its capacity in this respect was acknowledged in a special UN/ECOSOC Resolution 334B (XI) of 20 July 1950, and subsequently figured in successive Annual Reports of the UN Secretary General. The UIA has had consultative relationship with UN/ECOSOC since 1951 for that reason.

In response to the challenges of society, the UIA was generating studies in 1969 and 1970 with titles such as: Improvement of communication within the world-system: research uses, applications and possibilities of a computer-based information centre on national and international organizations and related entities (1969) and International organizations and the generation of the will to change: the information systems required (1970). The UIA's continuing dedication to democratic development and the development of information technology potential are reflected in a range of UIA-led project proposals, including:

Challenge: more meaningful uses of information

The UIA has survived in a country overrun by two World Wars, and the following period in which international documentation was subject to considerable Cold War pressures applied through intergovernmental institutions to distort the realities with which individual organizations had to deal. Although the UIA does not associate itself with advocacy on particular concerns, in accordance with its documentalist culture, it exhibited strong resistance to efforts to curtail or misrepresent information from any sector throughout that period.

Underlying this century of exploration is the fundamental question of what to do with information on organizations and issues to enable action for the betterment of society - and how to enhance public understanding of the challenge.  At the start of this new millennium, in a version of the knowledge society prefigured by its founder Paul Otlet, the UIA seeks the endorsement of the modern Internet community to continue this work in partnership with the civil society community in the operation and delivery of services to the community.

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