For most people who – like me – have been born in the second half of the 20th century, printed encyclopedias were the pinnacle of authoritative knowledge. Their leather-bound volumes evoked respect and marked their owner as both affluent and as a person of intellect. Taking a few steps over to the book case in your living room would settle whatever discussion people had with their friends or family.
The Encyclopædia Britannica was a prominent example of what Gillian Thomas once called “an oddly comforting piece of cultural furniture” (Gillian Thomas, Women and the Eleventh Britannica). When Britannica announced in 2012 that no new editions will be put on paper, an era lasting for 244 years came to an end.
The entire last print edition of Encyclopædia Britannica contained 44 million words in 32 volumes. This month, student editors enrolled in Wiki Education’s program to systematically improve the factual accuracy of Wikipedia, reached a critical milestone: since 2010, they’ve added more than 44 million words to Wikipedia, eclipsing the amount of information available in the last print edition of Britannica.
Hitting this milestone in 2018 makes it even more meaningful. Not only has the instant availability of knowledge on our mobile devices changed the way we learn about the world around us. It’s also that the public – in the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts” – relies increasingly on Wikipedia as an accurate and trustworthy source of information. It’s not just that Wikipedia, as Noam Cohen recently wrote in the Washington Post, has become the “‘good cop’ of the Internet”, it’s also that the general public now more than ever needs this cop to be in excellent shape.
When I started editing Wikipedia in 2005, the idea that the “encyclopedia that everybody can edit” would follow in the footsteps of the Britannica or even get close to being a trusted source of factual information seemed far-fetched. I still remember the smiles that I and other volunteers earned back then, whenever we talked about our vision to create a reference work that would eventually provide hundreds of millions of people around the globe with high-quality information.
To be clear: the fact that Britannica now plays a smaller role in shaping public knowledge doesn’t evoke any feeling of triumph in me. I’ve always admired printed encyclopedias for their well-written articles and the ability of their authors to summarize complex topics in only a few sentences. But at the same time, we need to remind ourselves that Wikipedia, with its free-of-charge model, has given many more people access to critical information than Britannica or any other modern print encyclopedia did. Wikipedia has democratized knowledge in a way that was unimaginable just a decade ago.
In order to increase the usefulness of Wikipedia, my team and I started to bridge the gap between Wikipedia and academia in 2010. Since then, we’ve supported more than 1,000 instructors at more than 500 universities who used Wikipedia as a teaching tool in their classrooms while improving the content that so many people rely upon. The fact that tens of thousands of new student editors have added the equivalent amount of content of the last print edition of Britannica makes all of us incredibly proud and thankful.
Wiki Education is dedicated to ensuring Wikipedia’s content is factually accurate, complete, and representative. We’ll continue to serve the millions of readers who use Wikipedia to make their own best choices as informed citizens. The milestone we reached today confirms the validity of our model and spurs us on for the next eight years of service to the public.
Wiki Education is the only organization in the world systematically improving the factual information available on Wikipedia at scale. The best way to ensure that our work continues is to donate.