9 April 2012

Nigeria: The Visit of Wikipedia's Founder Is Welcome!


About ten years ago, I was a member of my university's senate library committee here on Long Island, New York. The committee was charged with regulating virtually all aspects of the university library, and we were just warming up to the idea of an IT explosion at the time.

So ideas of sorts were thrown around, one of which was a plan for a total replacement of all journals and the millions of volumes of books in the library with electronic versions. I must confess that initially, I felt a little bit of trepidation, if not outright upset, by this suggestion. This was because I was thinking of the deprivation and a sense of loss that was certainly going to ensue if the library did not carry hardcopy volumes. I love traditional book shelves, and I have approximately three thousand books in my personal library; I don't throw away or sell books. It's not difficult to imagine how uncomfortable I felt with the thought of an empty bookshelf. In the end, the university decided to add the electronic versions, while phasing out only a small fraction of the print journals at a time. I liked the scheme!

Seeing how the e-book market is exploding, reality will force me (and all those print book aficionados) to brace up for the eventual disappearance of many print titles. Do you remember Encyclopedia Britannica? Few people will disagree with me that displaying the complete 32-volume set used to be a status symbol in those days, in an addition to the decorative role! (They do look beautiful.) If you are one of those who don't, you will need to find other ways of boosting your status or beautifying your office. This is because the Chicago-based company of the same name that publishes the books has decided to not print any more volumes when its current stock runs out. This hurts, and I can only say requiem to a tradition that started in 1768. But not to worry - the e-version of Encyclopedia Britannica is taking over. Alas, you will be checking your words out on iPad, Kindle, Nook, or whichever tablet you have.

In a way this trend is not surprising, as I have already discussed the transition from paper textbooks to electronic ones in previous articles and have mentioned a few of the advantages of this development. These advantages include compactness, or the ability to "pack" hundreds or even thousands of books into a gadget the size of a small 2A Exercise Book. The e-readers also allow the display of audio and visuals. After the initial device cost, the cost of titles can be very cheap when compared to print books. There is no stopping the trend from print materials to their electronic versions.

Jimmy Wales, the man who founded Wikipedia, visited Nigeria two weeks ago, and there he expressed a similar sentiment that the end of the print run of Encyclopedia Britannica signals our growing reliance on the internet as a base for knowledge.

Jimmy Wales' visit to Nigeria was quite welcome. It demonstrated his desire to expand the coverage of Wikipedia to include African languages. It also signaled the importance of the potential information and communication technology (ICT) portfolio of Africa's most populous country. Of the major African languages, he identified Yoruba as a rich language that is supporting Wikipedia content development.

The growth of the English version of the Wikipedia seems to be slowing, thereby motivating the need to support other languages. Wales also alluded to the role of the internet as a force for preserving culture.

Wales acknowledges the limits of Wikipedia, a website he said is edited by a user base that is approximately 87 percent male with an average age of 26. We obviously need diversity here. In addition, I would like to remind us that, in contrast to the Britannica, Wikipedia's articles are not necessarily written by experts on a subject. This suggests that virtually anyone can contribute, of course with the implication that one needs to be very cautious in using the materials in this knowledge base.

Wales pointed out that the Yoruba language led the continent of Africa in actual pages in its own version of Wikipedia, with the number over 29,000. He did, however, mention the need for more detailed entries and for substantial increase in the number of people creating the Yoruba entries.

In comparison, the number of Wikipedia articles in other languages, counting in millions, is as follows: English (3.5), Deutsch (1.17), French (1.05), Italian (0.76), Chinese (.73), Spanish (.70), Polish (.76), Netherlands (0.66), Russian (.65), and Portuguese (0.66).

Wales recognized the connectivity, or bandwidth, challenge in Nigeria - how the country relies on Internet over mobile phone networks, as hard-wired lines remain few and expensive. He hopes that fiber optic lines now running under the ocean to Nigeria could see better service brought to the country.

I will throw this one in, to "keep hope alive," and keep Nigerians encouraged. "From this hotel, the speed of the connection is better than in New York City, which is quite amazing," Wales said in a speech during his visit, drawing applause from the Nigerian crowd.

He of course alluded to the bigger challenges in other parts of the country, pointing out that the high bandwidth he observed was due to the fact that he was in a fancy hotel by the seaside in Lagos. Wales did not mention the country's electricity supply problem, which we know could have opened a can of worms.

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