What Wikipedia Would Look Like As An Actual Encyclopedia Set

It’s not as big as you’d think.

WIkipedia is big. Anyone who has a casual familiarity with the network knows the site is a sprawling, hyper-updated maze of user submitted information. But just how big is the English version? One contributor used the site’s publicly available metrics to estimate what the site would look like if the English language Wikipedia’s volumes were printed out and bound like the Encyclopædia Britannica of yore. The result — based off of user Tompw’s assumptions — is smaller than you’d think — only 1,908 volumes, or about 9.5 library stacks.

Here’s the math, according to Tompw:

  • This shows 2,537 million words across 4.3 million articles (for August 2013), implying an average of 590 words per article.
  • Same source shows 19.83 GB (=20,498,960 B) across 2,537 million words, implying 8.08B/word. ASCII uses 1B/character which in turn implies 8.36 characters/word. However, this includes wikimarkup, and 5 char/word plus one for space is standard, so 6 characters/word will be assumed.
  • There are currently 4,309,877 articles, which means 2,542,827,430 words, which means 15,256,964,580 characters.
  • One volume: 25cm high, 5cm thick. 500 leaves, 2 pagefaces per leaf, two columns per pageface, 80 rows/column, 50 characters per row. So one volume = 8,000,000 characters, or 1,333,337 words, or 2,259.9 articles.
  • Thus, the text of the English Wikipedia is currently equivalent to 1,907.1 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Sanity check: Encyclopædia Britannica has 44 million words across 32 volumes, or 1,375,000 words per volume. This would imply 1,849 volumes for WP.

While probably not exact — Tompw appears to be working off of rough estimates and the site is constantly evolving — the site’s surprising size demonstrates just how efficient Wikipedia is at getting you the information you need. For years now, most search queries return serviceable, if not comprehensive articles on even obscure topics, which is all the more surprising given the size. It’s also a reminder of the network’s blind spots. In printed and bound form, Wikipedia’s information network is far smaller than your average high school library, meaning that — while it’s still a staggeringly impressive and continuously updated collection — it’s still missing a great deal of the world’s information.

3. And for reference, here’s a similar visualization of Wikipedia in 2006 (about half the size it is now).

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