The Thinker's New Best Friend; as the Internet Overtakes the Encyclopedia, the Editor of a New Dictionary Asks If This Is the End for the Multi-Volume Reference Book

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Byline: JONATHON GREEN

GO to any library and there they stand - dictionaries, encyclopedias, gazetteers, who's whos, and all the rest of codified human knowledge, shelf upon shelf, volume upon volume. The Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, the next edition may be 40), the New Grove Dictionary of Music (29 vols), Encyclopedia Britannica (32), the imminent Dictionary of National Biography (60). They are giants in every sense.

All encompassing. Tomes that launched a thousand scholarships. The fruits of decades of intellectual effort, centuries even - Germany's great Deutsches Worterbuch, pioneered by the Brothers Grimm, was 122 years in the making.

But now the library is also filling up with VDUs and CD-Roms, gateways to the omnipotent internet.

Those reference works, costing hundreds to buy, are available online - at a price. A subscription to the OED sets you back around [pounds sterling]200 a year. Grove's 29,000 articles cost $295.

Competing with these commercial enterprises, the net is alive with free reference. Wikipedia, the "open content encyclopedia", last week registered more hits than Britannica ($59.95 pa). Wikipedia offers 317,454 articles, with versions in 78 languages (and not just the common tongues but Volapuk, Esperanto, Occitan and Tok Pisin). Nor is Wikipedia out there on its own.

Equally gratis are Wiktionary, Wikibooks (free textbooks) Wikiquote and Wikisource, a selection of source documents.

Wikipedia is an awkward neologism, formed from the Hawaiian wiki wiki, "super fast" and encyclopedia, a "written compendium of human knowledge".

Founded in January 2001 by internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, it is run by a not-for-profit foundation which solicits financial contributions. Wales, 38, admits to running another website, Bomus.com, which appears to purvey erotic images and dating contacts.

Wikipedia differs from other reference works in being user-created.

Anyone can contribute, on any topic, as long as the offering is factually verifiable. Once posted, the work is open to editing and revision by any other user. "If you do not want your writing to be edited mercilessly and redistributed at will," warns the site, "do not submit it."

As a specialist lexicographer, a Samuel Johnson of slang, I found myself wondering, is it any good?

Will it ever replace traditional reference books?

I checked out "slang" and was impressed. A solid overview, with references to cant (underworld slang), rhyming slang, Polari (camp and theatrical), and even French butcher's slang Louchebem (of which I was ignorant). All these topics are covered, some with a specimen vocabulary-and every article offers links within Wikipedia and elsewhere on the net.

I tried "war on terrorism" and found a wide-ranging appraisal with a qualifier that will never appear in a hardcopy book: "The neutrality of this article is disputed." This led me to a list of NPOV (neutral point of view) disputes. The topics are predictable - the Middle East is particularly contentious - and the idea of an encyclopedia that triggers realtime arguments about its content is appealing, albeit distracting.

I tried "rats" (I have pets). Again quite satisfactory: there is a link to Jack Black, self-styled rat-catcher to Queen Victoria. Sadly, J K Rowling seems to be rattist; Terry Pratchett is not.

Wikipedia is but one of many virtual reference sources. A search for "free online dictionary" yields 645,000 sites; "free online encyclopedia" 796,000. …