Here’s an interesting thought for the mind to wander around in today. On this very day, January 15th, all the way back in 2001 a little website by the name of Wikipedia was launched. Fourteen short years go by and it is now one of the most consulted sites on the web. This internationally used website brings up a very curious train of thoughts. One would not be considered crazy to say that Wikipedia is a collection of knowledge and information. Sure, there are some accuracy issues for sure, but all in all if you look up ducks, Wiki’s going to totally help you get your quack on. This massive collection of knowledge that is available for the whole world certainly bares a lot of resemblance to a free for all digital library. Incidentally, before the internet’s massive expansion, libraries were the original places to gather knowledge. Of course they still continue to do so, but no one can deny the awesome force that the internet has had in making knowledge accessible to the masses.
So, if we were to consider this website (on its very special day) to be a great collection of knowledge, then how does it stack up with some of the previous recipients of such high praise? How does Wikipedia stack up to some of the greatest libraries that humanity has produced? To ponder this question it helps to temporarily exchange the Clarks and the hoodie for some sandals and the stuff that Michael Jackson wore in the “Remember The Time” video. That’s right, we’re heading back to ancient Egypt. One of the largest tragedies in human history took place here and the victim was a library, knowledge more specifically. In Alexandria, Egypt around the start of the 3rd century BC construction began on what would become the world’s first great library. The Royal Library of Alexandria was a massive collection of knowledge, science, births, town records, astronomy documentation, poetry, recipes, stories, surveys of land, and various other bits of knowledge from wherever they could get it! Keep in mind this was the era of scrolls, not books, and there were a lot of scrolls here. This library had so many scrolls…(how many scrolls did it have?)…it had so many scrolls that historians estimate that around half a million of them resided in the library in its heyday. At the height of the city there were about 300,000 people living there. Meaning there were 1.7 scrolls for every person that lived in the area. Considering the time and technology that is a remarkable achievement. Eat, drink, love, learn, wonder, and be merry. Those were the objectives from the various thoughts located in this giant hall of knowledge. Sadly, as all good things must come to an end, as did the Royal Library of Alexandria. You know how it takes years for a tree to grow, but just a few moments to knock it over? Well, the same case applies here. Replace the tree with the library and the axe with Julius Caesar. After centuries of growth the mighty library was set to flames and reduced to ruins in a few short battles. The knowledge of the cosmos, the organization of numbers, the history of one of the earliest civilizations of humans ever, destroyed. A little under 1% of the library’s collection survived the battles. And so goes the story of one of the greatest collections of knowledge humanity ever had. No, its not wikipedia, but its a remarkable thought.
Let’s trade the sandals and Egyptian garb for some tight white leggings and a triangular hat. That’s right people, the next stop on this Wikipedia roller coaster takes us to Washington, DC in the year 1800. First of all, not many stories start at such an epic year. It’s very rare that a big historical event starts with a year you can totally remember. That would have made third grade way easier (and of course if bullies didn’t pick on kids with glasses). Regardless, in the year 1800, another great institution of knowledge was established. The Library of Congress opened its doors to the nation with a pretty impressive and ever growing collection. This library also doubles as the copyright registry for the nation so they’re adding to the collection all the time. Don’t roll your eyes and think that most of it is just your brother’s band’s first album or your ex-lover’s shitty novel that never amounted to anything. No, this place has some very exciting stuff. For example, the Gutenberg Bible, the rough draft of the Declaration Of Independence, 61 million manuscripts, the largest rare book collection on Earth, and millions upon millions of scores, recordings, etchings, prints and photographs in addition to the usual books about planets, farts, and jazz. This place has it all folks, 155 million items and growing. There are so many books here…(how many books are there?)….there are so many books here that if you laid them next to one another they would stretch 838 miles! That’s enough to go from Richmond, VA to some bar that Nelly‘s at in St. Louis, folks! That’s a big row of books. So, how does it compare to the Great Library of Alexandria? Sure it has more contents, but its got technology on its side, right? Don’t forget, The library in Alexandria could provide 1.7 books for every person who could access the library. Currently there are about 316 million Americans that technically have access to the library’s giant collection. If we do the numbers it does not work out too favorable for the mighty Library of Congress. 155 million items shared by 316 million people means that each person would basically end up with a little less than half of one item. That’s okay though, the country has many great libraries and thus this one does not need to be the only big one like Alexandria’s was. Washington DC’s Library of Congress is actually currently the world’s largest library. So, even though the collection is percentage wise smaller than that of Alexandria’s, it’s still a force to contend with. It’s no Wikipedia, but it is definitely worth a visit many times in one’s life.
So, that phrase keeps coming up, “It’s not Wikipedia, but….”. So, is Wikipedia that great? On it’s birthday its hard to say no, but the numbers will tell the truth, right? How many entries are there on Wikipedia anyway? Keep in mind this is a totally digital platform and just about anyone has the ability to add some content to it from around the world. Our world currently holds 7.2 billion people. Alexandria had 300,000 people and the library’s collection was at 500,000. The United States holds 316 million people and the collection at the Library of Congress is 155 million items. So, how many articles are there on Wikipedia compared to the 7.2 billion people that have access to this digital library? Surprisingly, all of their long entries and small blurbs and quick sentence description pages all add up to about 750,000 entries. This works out to a staggering 0.0001 entry per person on the planet. How can this be? How is it possible that the numbers don’t come anywhere near making sense? Well, how much can you expect out of someone that’s turning 14 years old? Sure they can make good decisions, but they probably can’t tell you much about mortgage refinances because they just have not gotten there yet, the knowledge has not been accumulated yet. Wikipedia is only 14 years old and has 750,000 entries. It took centuries to get The Library of Alexandria up to 500,000 scrolls. The Library of Congress has needed 215 years to build up 155 million items. Wikipedia is hitting 750,000 entries by year 14. Not bad. If that exact rate keeps up then there would be about 1.5 million entries by 2029. The chances of a steady rate of entries is highly unlikely though. The world is waking up to the vast opportunities available once technology is introduced to their lives. There are more humans than ever right now and the same goes for computers. The gap between those with and without technology will only close in as advancing technology makes previous innovations more affordable. In the event that humanity and Wikipedia survives a few more centuries, how many entries would be in there by then? Would we run out of things to even report, document, and collect? Who knows! Anyway, just an interesting few thoughts on the many faces of collected knowledge over the years. Happy birthday Wikipedia, wishing you many happy returns of the day!