NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2007
Wikipedia – The Free Online Encyclopedia and More
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

(click to email author)

http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki College level books in English
http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Wikiprofessional Professional books in English
http://species.wikimedia.org Life Sciences

When I was in elementary school in the mid 1950’s, my parents were compelled to purchase for my siblings and me a World Book Encyclopedia. It was about two dozen volumes, had the red and blue leatherette binding, and was terribly expensive for its day. For several years after that, my parents purchased the yearbook update. When my own kids were young, we purchased a then fairly recent edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that someone had donated for a library sale, and it served my kids well as they grew up. Early during the personal computer era, I purchased the first version of Microsoft Encarta on CD, which brought an interactive encyclopedia into the realm. Today there are some excellent and mostly free online reference resources that are rendering the expensive multi-volume printed encyclopedias obsolescent.

One of the most popular and widely used online and free encyclopedias is Wikipedia, found online at http://www.wikipedia.org. What is unusual about Wikipedia is the fact that the items in it are not written by big-named experts, but are instead composed by countless contributors ranging from expert scholars to casual readers, and is available in a multitude of languages. In fact, anyone can submit information to Wikipedia, and anyone can submit additional information, updates, and corrections to it. Countless others review the material for content and accuracy, all doing this on a volunteer basis. The review process can be easily accomplished by the general public, as almost all articles have an “edit this page” link. The name “Wikipedia” is a combination of the term “wiki” which is a collaborative website, and “encyclopedia”. This process started in 2001, and in just six years has grown to a massive information resource with over 1.7 million articles in English alone. While English is the predominate language, it is also available online in German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Polish, Swedish, and about 100 other languages, making it easily accessible to almost anyone in the world with internet access.

Wikipedia uses a simple search box to locate the topic. Once the topic is displayed, a traditional internet system of hyperlinks (cross references) connects the user to additional information. Using the Wikipedia listing for Beaumont, Texas as an example, the opening lines state, “Beaumont is a city and county seat of Jefferson County, Texas and is within the Beaumont-Port Arthur metropolitan area. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, the city had a population of 113,866. With Port Arthur and Orange, it forms the Golden Triangle, a major industrial area on the Gulf Coast.” Several of the terms, such as “Jefferson County”, “Beaumont- Port Arthur”, “Orange” and the “Gulf coast” are hyperlinked to additional information. Following the opening paragraphs of most entries is a table of contents linking to the subtopics on the page. Using Beaumont again as an example, there are 15 linked subtopics including history, politics and government, climate, severe weather events, demographics, points of interest, education, media, famous residents, famous businesses, local events, references, and external links.

In addition to the typical comprehensive articles common to any encyclopedia, Wikipedia also offers a variety of other services. An extensive online dictionary, the “Wicktionary” is online at http://www.wiktionary.org. The Wicktionary currently has 347,000 entries in 389 languages, making it arguably the largest and most comprehensive dictionary in the world.

Wikibooks (http://www.wikibooks.org) offers a variety of full text books as an online resource. There are now over 25,000 titles available in English on Wikibooks, and thousands more online in other languages. The online book collection is searchable by title, category, alphabetical, Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress classification, by a simple menu, and a variety of other methods. In the English menu, topics include natural sciences, social sciences, computing, humanities and arts, and “Special Groups”. The “Special Groups” includes such diverse topics as cookbooks, how-to guides, study guides, technology, “Wikijunior” (full color books for children ages 8 to 11), “Wikistudy” (high school level textbooks and SAT test preparation), “Wikiversity” (college level textbooks at en.wikiversity.org/wiki), and “Wikiprofessional” (professional level textbooks including CPA and technical courses).

“Wikinews” is an online multilingual news resource where the news stories are submitted and composed by a “…group of volunteers whose mission is to present reliable, unbiased, relevant and entertaining News.” The news categories listed here are so comprehensive that they may serve as a substitute for other more traditional online news services.

For those interested in the life sciences of biology, botany, and other such sciences, a special area “Wikispecies” is online at species.wikimedia.org. The English language portion of “Wikispecies” consists of over 92,000 articles, with thousands of other articles available in over 40 languages.

The “Wikimedia Commons” (commons.wikimedia.org) is a multilingual resource consisting of about 1.3 million media files. These files includes both audio and video formats as well as still images on a diversity of subjects including nature, science, and society. In additional to being searchable, there is also a menu broken down by topic, type (format), author, source, and type of license.

“Wikiquote” (http://www.wikiquote.org) is a substantial collection (about 10,000 in English, plus thousands more in dozens of other languages) consisting of a “… compendium of quotations from notable people and creative works.” Almost any type of famous quotation can be found and documented here.

An online collection of free content publications is available at wikisource.org. This collection referred to as the “Free Library” contains over 52,000 titles in English, 24,000 in French, 21,000 in Spanish, and tens of thousands of other titles in a myriad of other languages. Many of these titles are classics that are currently in the public domain, including tomes by Jules Verne, James Fenimore Cooper, Audubon, and thousands of others. This resource is fully searchable, or content can be located by the use of a simple menu hierarchy.

Wikipedia and its companion services are an excellent and free tool to stimulate discussion and spread knowledge. It may very well be one of the most comprehensive informational resources on the internet. The old Disney cartoon character Jiminy Cricket taught me how to spell “encyclopedia” when I was a toddler; now I will spell it “Wikipedia”.

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