Font of all wisdom, or not?

The internet may one day hold the library of all knowledge, but not while Wikipedia predominates, says Martin Cohen

April 9, 2009

The library used to be the heart of the university. Not any more. In June 2007, Michael Gorman, the former president of the American Library Association, warned that "a generation of intellectual sluggards incapable of moving beyond the internet" was being produced at universities. He described Wikipedia, along with Google, as "the intellectual equivalent of a dietitian who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs". But why shouldn't people use the net? The internet is also the modern-day equivalent of the first known library of its kind, the Library at Alexandria.

That one, too, was charged with collecting all the world's knowledge. Its shelves were filled with new works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects. The library's aims could not have been more lofty: over the scrolls, carved into the wall above, a famous inscription read: "The place of the cure of the soul."

Yet the reality was more prosaic. The knowledge came largely from lavishly funded trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens, coupled with a policy (it was whispered) of pulling the books off every ship that came into port, keeping the originals and returning only copies to their owners.

A similarly lofty aim, and a similar opportunism, seems to apply to the new internet encyclopaedias, notably Wikipedia, "the world's knowledge base", which started by shamelessly plundering articles from the celebrated 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is now in the public domain. And not only that: articles were also grabbed from the 1849 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology edited by William Smith, Hugh James Rose's 1853 Biographical Dictionary, Matthew George Easton's Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1897) and many others. No wonder Wikipedia boasts nearly three million entries.

But despite its success, as measured in web traffic - it is the seventh most visited site in the US - the future for Wikipedia looks these days no more assured than that of the Library in Alexandria. It is not "trusted" and is increasingly vulnerable to rival initiatives. It is in this context that Wikipedia's co-founder, Larry Sanger, who left that project abruptly, created an alternative online collaborative encyclopaedia, to be written by "experts", which he called Citizendium. Where Wikipedia is huge and, well, encyclopaedic, Citizendium, with fewer than 100 articles "approved", is tiny and, well, "scholarly". On the site's introductory page Sanger explains: "We do not think that Wikipedia is 'good enough'. We think humanity can do better."

He then lists some of Wikipedia's known problems: "Many of the articles are written amateurishly. Too often they are mere disconnected grab-bags of factoids, not made coherent by any sort of narrative. Many experts have been driven away because know-nothings insist on ruining their articles."

Citizendium's promise instead is to harness the networking power of the internet to rationalise Wikipedia and Google and to finally provide that elusive universal library.

Ironically though, given that Sanger complains that his Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales acts as a law unto himself, "not subject to a written constitution, with no official position, but wielding considerable authority in the community", Citizendium operates without a clear constitutional framework, with Sanger as editor-in-chief micro-managing articles as well as creating general policy.

Yet, if many of Citizendium's criticisms seem to apply equally to itself, at least one of its innovations - the "peer review" of pages followed by their protection from future editing - seems to have influenced a fundamental rethink by its Big Brother predecessor. Under new proposals, many Wikipedia articles will be protected from changes by a group of editors. "You can edit this page" has morphed into "You can suggest an edit to this page".

More tempting to academics may be to create their own "wiki", on their own subjects and on their own terms. Indeed, it is already possible via resources such as philosophical-investigations.wikidot.com.

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