A German-based group called PediaPress is trying to raise enough money to make a print copy of all of Wikipedia. That's right, Wikipedia, the ever-evolving, always-changing, inherently digital encyclopedia of information gathered by contributors all over the world. To say this would be a massive project is an understatement.
One thousand volumes, 1,200 pages each — more than one million pages in all — about 80 meters of shelf space. That's what it would take to make a printed version of Wikipedia. The idea is to let people see just how much information is in the online encyclopedia, says Christoph Kepper and his partners at Pediapress.
"Nowadays you just use Wikipedia every day without even thinking how large that might be ... the English Wikipedia has 4.5 million articles," Kepper says. "Nobody can imagine this number. It's only when you see this in print or in a physical form that you realize how large it really is."
Kepper and his partners are trying raise $50,000 through an Indiegogo campaign. Their plan is to exhibit the book at a Wikimania conference in London in August. "We basically thought, OK, let's put up a big bookshelf and put the books into it and let as many people as possible access this shelf and interact with it and get a feeling of about how large it is for themselves," Kepper explains.
"This is not an idea I think is good," says Lee Matthew, a blogger for geek.com. He thinks a printed Wikipedia is unnecessary — a waste of paper and other valuable resources.
"I understand from an artistic standpoint what they are trying to show," Matthew says. "I think, though, that the beauty of what Wikipedia is gets lost when you try and print it. ... Trying to put something like Wikipedia that is constantly evolving into a print form doesn't work for me."
Pediapress is sensitive to the criticism that a printed Wikipedia would use a lot of paper. In fact, they plan to plant trees to make up for the paper they use. That makes Jordyn Taylor, who writes for BetaBeat, feel a lot better about the project.
"I totally get it," Taylor says. "I totally get where they are coming from because you know, when we look back at media history we can look at old books, we can look at old newspapers, old magazines. But there's no way to go back and look at the history of the Internet. And I am imagining us teaching kids in the future about the history of the Internet and how are we going to go back and show them what it looked like in the 1990s and the 2000s?"
The partners at PediaPress say they do think of this as a period piece. After it is shown at next summer's conference they would love to find a more permanent home for it. Matthew Winner, a blogger and elementary school librarian, has some ideas.
"This is public knowledge, so putting it somewhere on display where the public can access it — New York public library or something like that — where everyone has access to it, the Library of Congress. ... I think that's a wonderful idea," Winner says. "We have the user data of how many people are accessing and interacting with Wikipedia online now. It'll be fun to see how many people are coming to see that print resource. And that is something we'll only know after it's printed."
Winner says a lot of people — including many librarians — are skeptical of Wikipedia as a reliable research tool. But he thinks seeing the encyclopedia in print might change some of those attitudes. And Winner loves that at the exhibit next summer they plan to have printers — kind of like old news wire machines — that will constantly create updates.
"I think that might even be more interesting than the Wikipedia print-out itself — just for us to watch how quickly people are interacting with the document," he says.
But one thing they can't do, says blogger Jordyn Matthews, is edit the printed version itself.
"That's the inherent fun of Wikipedia," Matthews says. "You know, sometimes you stumble across a paragraph that definitely shouldn't be there, and it's a little alarming, but I think ... you have to love Wikipedia, warts and all."
PediaPress still has a lot of money to raise with its campaign which will come to end on April 11.