Wired recently ran an excellent article on Wikipedia: The Book Stops Here .

Four years ago, a wealthy options trader named Jimmy Wales set out to build a massive online encyclopedia ambitious in purpose and unique in design. This encyclopedia would be freely available to anyone. And it would be created not by paid experts and editors, but by whoever wanted to contribute. With software called Wiki – which allows anybody with Web access to go to a site and edit, delete, or add to what’s there – Wales and his volunteer crew would construct a repository of knowledge to rival the ancient library of Alexandria.

In 2001, the idea seemed preposterous. In 2005, the nonprofit venture is the largest encyclopedia on the planet. Wikipedia offers 500,000 articles in English – compared with Britannica’s 80,000 and Encarta’s 4,500 – fashioned by more than 16,000 contributors. Tack on the editions in 75 other languages, including Esperanto and Kurdish, and the total Wikipedia article count tops 1.3 million.

Wikipedia’s explosive growth is due to the contributions of Kvaran and others like him. Self-taught and self-motivated, Kvaran wrote his first article last summer – a short piece on American sculptor Corrado Parducci. Since then, Kvaran has written or contributed to two dozen other entries on American art, using his library and photographs as sources. He’s added words and images to 30 other topics, too – the Lincoln Memorial, baseball player Carl Yastrzemski, photographer Tina Modotti, and Iceland’s first prime minister, Hannes Hafstein, who happens to be Kvaran’s great-grandfather. “I think of myself as a teacher,” Kvaran says over tea at his kitchen table.

To many guardians of the knowledge cathedral – librarians, lexicographers, academics – that’s precisely the problem. Who died and made this guy professor? No pedigreed scholars scrutinize his work. No research assistants check his facts. Should we trust an encyclopedia that allows anyone with a pulse and a mousepad to opine about Jackson Pollock’s place in postmodernism? What’s more, the software that made Wikipedia so easy to build also makes it easy to manipulate and deface. A former editor at the venerable Encyclop√¶dia Britannica recently likened the site to a public rest room: You never know who used it last.