In November of 2015, I had the huge honor of receiving the Erasmus Prize on behalf of the Wikipedia community, along with my colleagues and friends Lodewijk , a long time volunteer, and Adele Vrana of the Wikimedia Foundation.
We met the Dutch Royal Family, who were very gracious; we enjoyed fantastic hospitality, and we capped it with a ceremony in which we received a special prize, heard several very good speeches about the meaning of Wikipedia in the world today, and gave some speeches of our own. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, extraordinary evening.
Here is some more information, and here what I said.
Your Majesties, your Royal Highnesses, distinguished members of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, ladies and gentlemen, and fellow Wikimedians: thank you for this award, on behalf of the tens of thousands of people around the globe who contribute to Wikipedia. It is a great honor and privilege for us to be here in such distinguished company and in this beautiful building, and it is a great honor for our project to join the extraordinary company of past prize winners.
And in thinking about that past, I’d like to begin with a little history.
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, 28 October 1466 – 12 July 1536, known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, or simply Erasmus, was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian.
That is the first sentence of the Wikipedia article in English about Erasmus. The article goes on for 30 more pages to describe his life, work and legacy. It is illustrated by paintings and reproductions of manuscripts; there are footnotes and scholarly sources, and an extensive bibliography. And remarkably, you can also learn about Erasmus in 73 other languages, ranging from Indonesian to Italian, Arabic to Norwegian, Swahili to Dutch, and even Latin.
But none of these things are the most astonishing part about this encyclopedia article. The most astonishing part is that it was begun almost exactly fourteen years ago, on 29 November 2001, by one anonymous person. This person visited what was at the time a nearly-unknown website, wrote one sentence about “Erasmus of Rotterdam”, and then clicked “save” for the world to see. And then, over the course of the next fourteen years, over 1.700 different people would contribute to the article to make it what it is today. Some of the changes they made were small — formatting, making a sentence easier to read. Some changes were big: adding new paragraphs, researching sources, taking pictures of commemorative sculptures. These editors used the wiki technology to collaborate on writing the article, but they probably did not know each other’s real names, professions, or countries. But nonetheless Wikipedia’s editors formed a community and built an encyclopedia. They developed structures and guidelines, they argued over what should be in it, and they shared in one great passion: to make the encyclopedia as good as it possibly could be, and to build a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
What the story of this article also tells us is that, in addition to being the most accessed reference work in the world, Wikipedia is also a deeply scholarly work. Many libraries, archives and museums have understood this and have developed innovative programs that share their scholarly expertise and unique collections with Wikipedia. These institutions recognize that Wikipedia’s editors don’t just use their own knowledge to write articles; they are also skilled researchers.
But to be a good researcher, you must have access to research. Open access to scholarly research is crucial because so many Wikipedia editors and readers around the globe don’t have access to great libraries. I want to live in a world where my neighbor and I can both look at the same Wikipedia article, and both get access to the sources cited in it, even though I work for one of the world’s great universities and she does not. And, I want the Wikipedia editors who write that article — the editors in Bangladesh, in Argentina, in Amsterdam — to also have access to that research.
Libraries, museums and Wikipedia have a lot in common. We are all committed to preserving our cultural heritage and knowledge and sharing it widely. And for Wikipedia, this means sharing with the world.
When I look at a Wikipedia article, whether it is long or short, I don’t just see a useful summary of some topic of interest. I see the people behind it, our global community of passionate, quirky, scholarly people who believe that free information for everyone is worth working for. This is the community that we are accepting this award on behalf of, and the community that we are proud to be a part of. Thank you.