truly, for all its flaws, Wikipedia is a wonderful thing


1993 wasn’t so long ago; Bill Clinton was president, a fact that the Columbia editors boast about having been able to include at the last moment (the last moment here meaning the weeks or months between the book’s being set and its arriving in the shops or in the hands of door-to-door salesmen). Yet in encyclopedia publishing, 1993 is now prehistory. Even 2000, when a sixth – one has to presume final – edition of the Columbia appeared, belongs to another age. Two years later, a one-time market analyst called Jimmy Wales started up an experimental online project called Wikipedia, which allowed volunteers to create their own encyclopedia entries that could then be revised or even entirely rewritten by anyone else who happened to be logged on. Wales, like everyone else involved in the project, didn’t know if it would work, but since the technology was available it seemed worth a try. In its first year, Wikipedia generated 20,000 articles, and had acquired 200 regular volunteers working to add more (this compares with the 55,000 articles in the Columbia, all subject to rigorous standards of editing and fact-checking, though this in itself was a small-scale enterprise compared to the behemoths of the industry like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose 1989 edition covered 400,000 different topics). By the end of 2002, the number of entries on Wikipedia had more than doubled. But it was only in 2003, once it became apparent that there was nothing to stop it continuing to double in size (which is what it did), that Wikipedia started to attract attention outside the small tech-community that had noticed its launch. In early 2004, there were 188,000 articles; by 2006, 895,000. In 2007 there were signs that the pace of growth might start to level off, and only in 2008 did it begin to look like the numbers might be stabilising. The English-language version of Wikipedia currently has more than 2,870,000 entries, a number that has increased by 500,000 over the last 12 months.

more from the LRB here.