This Is What Happens When You Try to Print Out the Entirety of Wikipedia
Part of the Print Wikipedia installation faces old-school reference books at the Arizona State University Library. Michael Mandiberg
How big is Wikipedia? How many printed volumes would it take to put all of the online encyclopedia on a library’s shelves? I’m only asking about the 5 million or so articles in the English language version—there’s at least that many more in other languages.
Now we know, thanks to an artistic installation by New York artist Michael Mandiberg, first seen at the Elizabeth Denny Gallery on the Lower East Side last summer and now moved into the bright lights of a real library—the stacks of the Arizona State University Library in Tempe. (I’m the university librarian for ASU, and ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)
Mandiberg thought that converting Wikipedia into print would make people think about the site in a new way. So what he’s done is upload the entire contents of Wikipedia—observing carefully its Creative Commons license terms—to the print-on-demand website Lulu.com. From there any reader can find the volume or volumes she wants and order up a print-on-demand copy, and in six to eight business days, for a mere $80 each, you can have a bright, shiny copy.
Want the complete set? Well, you can do it, but it’s rather expensive. Each 7-by-9-inch volume comes in at 700 pages. Factor that into your attempt to guess how many volumes there are total.
The installation depicts the rows and rows of bound volumes on floor-to-ceiling "wallpaper," with selected print volumes shelved at the appropriate place in the alphabet along the walls of images. It's intended to force people to ask questions about the role Wikipedia plays role in our knowledge ecosystem. For instance, what does it mean to say that Wikipedia is an “encyclopedia”? (At ASU, we force the question by housing the installation on a wall facing our print encyclopedias.) Yes, it’s supposed to contain all of human knowledge, but the traditional model has topped out at 30 or 40 volumes, no matter how much human knowledge expands. How much further could we have gone as a species?
So how many? Well, the first clue should be that it took Mandiberg 24 days to upload the whole thing to the Lulu.com site.
Print lets you know things that you can’t know online—and vice versa, of course. With a traditional encyclopedia, there were always people who’d swear that as kids, they sat down and read through the whole thing in print. Nobody can pretend that for Wikipedia. But with an old-school Encyclopedia Britannica, at least it was easy to tell just how much was there. Even the length of an article was easier to grasp in print than online—eyeing the little gray scroll off to one side isn’t terribly helpful. I learned this lesson when my wife and I were looking up the article on soap. (How does soap get you clean? We wanted to know.) We thought we’d stepped into an endless river of soapy information. (That soap article is roughly 5,000 words long and has been edited more than 4,000 times since it was created in 2002.)
OK, give up? The complete text printed out to between 7,473 volumes, totaling more than 5 million pages. Without a discount, the price of a set would be more than $600,000. (Oh, there’s also a 91-volume index and a 35-volume index of contributors. Those will cost you extra.) Of course, it wouldn’t be encyclopedia selling without a special price just for you, and Mandiberg thinks he could get it to you for a something like two-thirds that, but we really don’t know. And how long it would take Lulu to produce all those volumes is at this point anybody’s guess, but you could spend the time installing the 400 or so yards of shelving it would take.
And even at 7,473 volumes, the print version doesn’t quite have all the features of the digital version. There are no hot links, of course, but it was also necessary to cut out much of the graphic and tabular content because no simple algorithm could form those into print pages without human intervention one article at a time. (Even more problematic: no editing history, no ability to reconstruct earlier versions of the same article, no way to follow the history of what happened to the “Sarah Palin” article within hours and days of her selection as vice presidential candidate by John McCain, though that editing history was a political fact of some importance.)
Human beings don’t do very well with thinking about large quantities, but this may help. At 7,473 volumes, Wikipedia is two orders of magnitude larger than the old Encyclopedia Britannica. Two orders of magnitude is a lot: It’s like running 1,000 miles instead of 10, or making $1 million instead of $10,000.
So one thing print Wikipedia does is help us think about the scope of the digital space within which we move. In the old print library, the new user can walk into the building and have an idea just how large it is. When I did that as a college freshman, the Princeton University library I entered—and I thought then and still think that libraries like that are totally amazing and unspeakably beautiful—was three orders of magnitude larger than anything I had seen in my home town of El Paso, Texas. Too much to digest, but I had a clue. (And what I had seen was two more orders of magnitude larger than the private library of the clerk of Oxford in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who was thought impossibly learned because he owned 25 books all to himself.)
When our students today enter the digital spaces that lie beyond our print shelves, they have no such advantages. Even the licensed, cataloged, at-your-disposal-through-our-library website resources are now several times larger than our print collection—and these students live not only with library resources but with all the gallimaufry of the open Internet. If I use Google to look up the word library tonight, I get 1.5 billion results. “Wikipedia” still gets a mere 850 million.
What we don’t know—what we don’t begin to have an inkling about knowing—is what happens to human beings when the available store of recorded knowledge is so vastly much bigger than we can even conceive. We will go on calling the collections we make, physical and digital, by the name library for a long time, I think, but they are already changed—changed utterly, as the man said 100 years ago. And to think that only 50 years ago we had no clue.
Jim O’Donnell is professor of historical, philosophical, and religious studies and university librarian at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Pagans (HarperCollins 2015).