October 20, 2020

Worthy Online Resource, but Global Cultural Treasure?

BERLIN — In its 10 years of existence, Wikipedia, the global online encyclopedia, has amassed an archive of 18 million entries in 279 languages. It is one of the 10 most popular Web sites on the Internet.

But is the volunteer-driven data depository an endangered world cultural treasure worthy of protection, like French cuisine, the Argentine tango or the Grand Canyon?

That is the long-shot bet being made by Wikipedia, which plans to begin a global petition drive Tuesday to earn a spot on one of the world heritage lists of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The bid, the first by a digital entity for a place on a Unesco list, will no doubt be controversial among heritage professionals advising Unesco, who tend to view online innovation as lacking the necessary effect or maturity for listing.

“Heritage professionals tend to be rather conservative types, or they wouldn’t choose this kind of occupation,” said Britta Rudolff, a heritage consultant who teaches on the subject at the Brandenburg University of Technology in Cottbus, Germany. “They like to play with the past, and something only a decade old is going to face challenges.”

The idea of landing Wikipedia on a Unesco world heritage list came out of Germany, where volunteers have produced 1.2 million entries, second only to the number in English. Wikipedia’s German overseer, a Berlin nonprofit called Wikimedia, proposed the idea in March to Wikipedia chapters at a global conference in the German capital.

The reception was enthusiastic, said a Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales.

“The basic idea is to recognize that Wikipedia is this amazing global cultural phenomena that has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Mr. Wales said in an interview. He said the online encyclopedia had helped educate people around the world, providing a wealth of basic facts, background information and key context.

Mr. Wales also said that one aim of the petition drive — supporters can register at a special Web page, Wikipedia 10 — is to raise awareness of Wikipedia.

“Of course, part of what we are trying to do is promote the idea of Wikipedia as a cultural phenomenon,” Mr. Wales said. “Too often, people think about us purely in terms of technology, when this is about culture, high tech and learning.”

Wikipedia is hoping to earn a place on Unesco’s most prestigious list, the World Heritage List, which so far includes only historic monuments and natural sites like the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Wall of China. Failing that, Wikipedia could aim for Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, a lesser-known directory that includes endangered traditions and practices, like flamenco.

Getting Wikipedia on either list will be an uphill battle. It will have to negotiate a complicated approval process and overcome the skeptical regard of Unesco and heritage consultants to be considered for recognition. Susan Williams, the head of external media relations at Unesco in Paris, said a bid by a digital entity like Wikipedia would be unprecedented.

“Anyone can apply,” said Ms. Williams, who added that she was not aware of Wikipedia’s plans. “But it may have difficulty fulfilling the criteria.”

One of the criteria for inclusion, she said, is that the culture or practice be endangered.

She said that Wikipedia might consider applying for a third, even less known honor, the Unesco Memory of the World Register list, which recognizes valuable archive holdings and library collections. That list, however, lacks the prestige of the others, which are funded more generously and promoted more assiduously by Unesco and its member countries.

Mr. Wales said Wikipedia was hoping to set off a debate over the role of digital innovation in world culture. While Wikipedia, which allows anyone to write or edit entries, has had problems with accuracy and plagiarism, the organization has worked to improve its editorial controls and to help people in repressive or less affluent societies.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/23/technology/23wikipedia.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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