The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource (1998 draft)

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This is a 1998 version of my plan for a free universal encyclopedia plus learning resource. I sent it to the organizer of an ACM SIGCSE conference scheduled for March 26, 1999, and spoke about the plan there; I assumed that they were publishing something about my talk, such as the text below, but in fact they did not. Crossed signals, I guess.

The World Wide Web has the potential to develop into a universal encyclopedia and a library of interactive self-teaching materials, covering all subjects at all levels, all freely accessible for everyone in the world. Given the number of people who will be in a position to contribute, this is the most natural way for the web to develop if left to itself.

But this development is not inevitable; corporations are mobilizing to direct the future on a different course, in which they restrict the use of learning materials so as to extract money from people who want to learn. How can we ensure that progress continues towards this best and most natural outcome? Here are some ideas.


Since we hope that professors and students at many universities around the US and the world will join in writing articles for the free encyclopedia, let's not leave this to chance. There are already scattered examples of what can be done. Let's present these examples systematically to the academic community, show the vision of the free universal encyclopedia, and invite for others to join in writing it.

Small steps will do the job.

When a project is exciting, it is easy to imagine a big contribution that you would like to make, bite off more than you can chew, and ultimately give up with nothing to show for it.

So it is important to welcome and encourage smaller contributions. Writing a textbook for a whole semester's material is a big job, and few teachers will have the time to contribute that much. But writing about a topic small enough for one meeting of a class is a manageable job, and many of these small maps can survey the whole world of knowledge.

Don't limit the scope.

The free encyclopedia has the potential to provide articles and self-teaching materials on every imaginable topic. It should cover all academic subjects from mathematics to art history, and practical subjects as well. It should cover them at all levels which are useful, ranging from kindergarten to graduate school.

A useful encyclopedia entry will address a specific topic at a particular level, and each author will contribute mainly by focusing on an area that he or she knows very well. But we should keep in the back of our minds the vision of an free encyclopedia that is universal in scope, and firmly reject any attempt to limit it.

Access for everyone.

The universal encyclopedia should be open to public access by everyone who can access the web. There are some who seek to gain control over educational materials, so they can profit by restricting access to them; they will push for us to "compromise" by agreeing to restrict access. Here we must stand firm.

Permit mirror sites.

When information is available on the web only at one site, its availability is vulnerable. Any sort of local problem--a computer crash, an earthquake or flood, a budget cut, a change in policy of the school administration--could cut off access for everyone. To guard against loss of the encyclopedia's material, we should make sure that every article can be available in more than one place, and that new places can be added if some disappear.

There is no need to set up an organization or a bureaucracy to do this, because Internet users like to set up "mirror sites" providing duplicate copies of interesting web pages, and will do it on their own. But we do have to make sure they are legally allowed to do it. So each article should explicitly grant irrevocable permission for anyone to make verbatim copies available on mirror sites. This permission should be one of the basic stated principles of the free encyclopedia.

Some day there may be systematic efforts to ensure that all parts of the encyclopedia are replicated in many copies--perhaps at least once on each of the six inhabited continents. This would be a natural extension of the mission of archiving that libraries undertake today. But there is no need to make plans for this now. It is sufficient to keep door open for people to do it later.

Permit translation into other languages.

People will have a use for encyclopedia articles on each topic in any and all human languages. But the primary language of the Internet--as of the world of commerce and science today--is English. So it may happen that contributions in English will outstrip other languages, and that the encyclopedia will as approach completeness in English long before other languages.

If this is what happens, trying to fight it would be self-defeating. It would be much wiser to let the English version serve as a stepping stone for versions in other languages. However, in order for this to happen, we must we avoid policies that could block it from happening.

Therefore, a basic principle of the free encyclopedia should be that accurate translations are always permitted, and each article should carry a statement permitting such translations. The author of the original page can reserve the right to insist on corrections in a translation, to make it more accurate, but the translator's right to publish a translation should not be in question as long as the requested corrections are made.

Take the long view.

If it takes twenty years to complete the free encyclopedia, we should not feel impatient. That will be a blink of the eye in comparison with the history of literature, a moment in the history of encyclopedias.

In projects like this, progress is slow for the first few years; then it accelerates as more and more people join in, and eventually avalanches. It makes sense to choose the first steps to illustrate what can be done, and to spread interest in the long-term goal to inspire others to join in.

This means that the pioneers' job, in the early years, is above all to be steadfast. We must be on guard against downgrading to a less complete, less thorough goal because of the magnitude of the task. Instead of measuring our early steps against the size of the whole job, we should think of them as examples, and have confidence that they will inspire more and more contributors to join and finish the job.