HistoryofScience.com Blog

Monday, July 21, 2008

The One-Volume Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Since writing From Gutenberg to the Internet I have continued to research the history of information -- particularly the history of the methods used for its creation, organization, distribution, and storage. The From Gutenberg to the Internet Timeline on my website may be considered a chronological outline of some of my research. Eventually this may result in a more comprehensive book.
A recurring theme in the history of information is the way that new media overlap with old, more in the form of gradual transitions than in sudden, disruptive revolutions. For example, the development of printing by moveable type in Europe by Gutenberg in the first half of the fifteenth century did not immediately replace the traditional method of book production by manuscript copying. Instead printing presses were established in cities and towns throughout Europe over several decades, and by the end of the fifteenth century the great majority of books were produced by printing, leading to a great expansion of both the creation and distribution of information. By the end of the 15th century it has been estimated that roughly 25,000 different individual publications and books had been issued by printers in Europe. This may have been about one hundred times the number of texts available in the largest library of Europe, the University of Paris, before the invention of printing. But, the expansion of information caused by printing was actually far greater than that since most European libraries in monasteries and universities contained even a smaller number of different texts before the invention of printing.
However, even after the growth of printing, a market for deluxe manuscript books--especially books of hours and other illuminated manuscripts-- continued to exist, to a diminished extent, of course, well into the sixteenth century. From the late fifteenth century through the eighteenth century certain books, on a variety of subjects--including surreptitious books-- continued to be published in small editions through manuscript copying. As late as the mid-nineteenth century editions of lectures, too small for printing, continued to circulate as manuscript copies. Though these later manuscript copies were, of course, no longer written by scribes in monastic scriptoria, the out-dated process of manuscript copying remained reflective, centuries later, of the medieval manuscript tradition.

It is hard to measure the explosive expansion of the quality of information that has been taking place on the Internet, but one of the ways we can do so is to reflect upon the number of distinct URLS that have been indexed. In the past Google has kept this information private. Recently, however, on Google's blog, they stated that the first Google index, built after the company was founded in 1998, indexed 26,000,000 URLs. By comparison, on July 25, 2008, Google announced that they had passed the milestone of indexing one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) unique URLs. A URL may be a web page, an image--anything with a distinct web address. As the volume of information expands at this unimaginable rate, we are witnessing the overlap of the traditional information technology of printing, established for over 500 years, with the new electronic media, rather than the replacement of printing on paper. And more printing may going on than ever, if you count the hundreds of millions of computer printers attached to the billion plus personal computers connected to the Internet. Nevertheless certain kinds of information, previously distributed through printing on paper are now distributed exclusively in electronic form. But even vastly far more information is being distributed in electronic form than on paper, printing technology has continued to improve, and millions of books--including some very spectacular examples of book production-- continue to be produced. Today there are roughly 4,000,000 new titles in print, and over 100,000,000 copies of second-hand, out of print and antiquarian titles for sale on the web.
An ironic example of how the printed book is continuing to adapt to the Internet is the announced “The One-Volume Wikipedia Encyclopedia." This book, announced by Bertelsmann for publication in September, is expected to be an annual compilation, and perhaps abridgement, of what the editors think are the best Wikipedia articles, selected, and presumably translated, from the German language version of the Wikipedia. There are currently roughly 2,500,000 articles in the English language Wikipedia. Since the whole point of the Wikipedia is how it is constantly improved and updated by thousands of collaborators on the Internet, one wonders how the printed book will be accepted.
The publishers appear not to be overly optimistic as the initial press run is supposed to 20,000--just a tiny smidgeon of the millions of people who use the Wikipedia. In any case the book will, apparently, have the historic distinction of crediting more authors--about 90,000 listed in small print on many pages--than any other single volume in the history of printed books.

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 10:18 AM   22 Comments


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