February 24, 2014

Wikipedia to be a book, or rather, a lot of books


Wikipedia bookshelves

Those sneaky Wikipedians! First, they made print encyclopedias obsolete, and now, they’ve decided that perhaps print isn’t so dusty and backwards after all.

A group called the Wikipedia Book Project is in the midst of raising money to print out all of Wikipedia (as of sometime this spring) and present it in the form of 1,000 books, each 1,200 pages long.

Why would you do this? Well, for a number of reasons, say the WBP-ers, who’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $50,000 in order to cover the costs of this printing extravaganza. For one thing, it’ll show how big Wikipedia actually is: longer than the landmark Encyclopédie (28 volumes), longer than the Encyclopedia Britannica (32 volumes in its last print edition), longer even than the monumental 19th-century German Oekonomische Encyklopädie (242 volumes). The complete printed Wikipedia will be the largest collection of knowledge, in page numbers, in the history of encyclopedia-making.

Or perhaps to fix the ever-evolving resource in time. The group hopes to donate the whole set of books to a library once the project is complete, because “to later generations, this might be a period piece from the beginning of the digital revolution.”

In a Wired article on it, Katie Collins concurs:

This is probably the most interesting idea associated with the project — we have no idea how future generations will store, organise, access and study digital history. It is a challenge our ancestors never presented us with and, as such, we are the first generation to force this conundrum upon our descendants.

It also seems in keeping with a turn towards print that many digital outlets have been taking over the past year or so. Emma Aylor wrote on this site earlier in the year about why places like the Los Angeles Review of Books and the New Inquiry had plans in the works for print versions of themselves, saying:

Even for those of us who grew up online, it is difficult to really believe in its permanence; printed media and other “analog” formats appeal to that slight, nagging feeling of transience in trying to save impressions from an ever-changing place.

You could also see these print projects in a couple of other ways: as the arriviste’s assertion of their legitimacy in a literary culture still at least slightly in print’s thrall. Or as experiments — symptoms of these outlets’ relative financial health and format curiosity.

But maybe the most compelling justification for the Wikipedia Book Project put forward by the fundraisers is the technological challenge: it wasn’t always possible to turn printed Wikipedia pages into a coherent encyclopedia and it’s still a tricky assignment. But the team behind the WBP has had some practice doing this.

That team is Heiko Hees, Christoph Kepper and Alex Boerger of PediaPress, which, it turns out, has been working on making books out of Wikipedia content since 2007 (see the press release, “Wikis Go Printable”). PediaPress is “the official print on demand partner of the Wikimedia Foundation,” and its developers have built an open source book tool, which allows anyone to collect material from Wikipedia and turn it into a book. Their site has a pretty toothsome catalog of books put together this way: for instance, Depeche Mode: A Compilation for the Masses, or Cars: The Best Book on Cars Ever.

When Hees, Kepper, and Boerger describe what the Wikipedia Book Project will entail, one gets the overwhelming sense that they’re itching to test out their skills and experience on a grand scale:

Until a few years ago, such a project would have been impossible. Thanks to advances in computing power, internet bandwidth, open source software and print on demand technologies, today we can programmatically transform content from Wikipedia into printable PDFs. The challenge will be to scale and refine our existing technologies to handle the size and diversity of the complete Wikipedia. Every article – including images – needs to be aggregated and preprocessed. Afterwards, the content will be rendered automatically in a three column layout and distributed across multiple volumes.

The final layout files will be uploaded to the printing facility where 1,000 unique hardcover books will be printed onto more than 600,000 sheets of paper, manually bound, and prepared for shipping.

A massive assembly and printing endeavor, in other words, whose end result will be not only physically, but also technologically impressive. It’s almost too apt that PediaPress is located in Mainz, Germany, where Gutenberg set up the first printing press — and then lost it when the funders who’d loaned him the capital that financed the Bible repossessed his equipment for non-payment of debts. Try repossessing the open source Wikipedia book tool, though! To paraphrase a terrible cigarette ad, we’ve come a long way, baby.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.