It seemed preposterous that an encyclopedia could be written and edited by just anyone. Maybe that’s what Wikipedia really is.
Kvaran is a tall and hale 56-year-old with a ruddy face, blue eyes, and blond hair that’s turning white. He calls himself an “art historian without portfolio” but has no formal credentials in his area of proclaimed expertise. He’s never published a scholarly article or taught a college course. Over three decades, he’s been a Peace Corps volunteer, an autoworker, a union steward, a homeschooling mentor, and the drummer in a Michigan band called Kodai Road. Right now, he’s unemployed. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t work. For about six hours each day, Kvaran reads and writes about American sculpture and public art and publishes his articles for an audience of millions around the world.
Hundreds of books on sculptors, regional architecture, and art history are stacked floor to ceiling inside his trailer – along with 68 thick albums containing 20 years of photos he’s taken on the American road. The outlet for his knowledge is at the other end of his dialup Internet connection: the daring but controversial Web site known as Wikipedia.
Four years ago, a wealthy options trader named Jimmy Wales set out to build a massive online encyclopedia ambitious in purpose and unique in design. This encyclopedia would be freely available to anyone. And it would be created not by paid experts and editors, but by whoever wanted to contribute. With software called Wiki – which allows anybody with Web access to go to a site and edit, delete, or add to what’s there – Wales and his volunteer crew would construct a repository of knowledge to rival the ancient library of Alexandria.
In 2001, the idea seemed preposterous. In 2005, the nonprofit venture is the largest encyclopedia on the planet. Wikipedia offers 500,000 articles in English – compared with Britannica’s 80,000 and Encarta’s 4,500 – fashioned by more than 16,000 contributors. Tack on the editions in 75 other languages, including Esperanto and Kurdish, and the total Wikipedia article count tops 1.3 million.