Understanding Jimmy Wales, but not free knowledge

At the end of December, I was invited to an Esperanto convention that took place in my relative vicinity. Some 30-40 people (of 110 participants) came to my two lectures on the history of encyclopedias and Wikipedia. Essentially I presented what I show to German school teachers, with a special focus on free knowledge, free licenses and the benefits of that for everybody. People had smart questions and the tendency to go into detail; many have a website or edit an Esperanto newspaper and want to know how to use Wikimedia Commons, whether they are allowed to use free content commercially etc.

But the two sessions were also very useful for me because I learned once more about what people already know about Wikipedia and what are the usual wrong conceptions. Explaining/understanding free knowledge is very challenging, and it really needs the large approach I provide at a slow pace, with examples and simplifications.

The sessions were part of the ‘International Winter University’ of the convention, organized by astronomy professor Amri Wandel of Tel Aviv. At the end of the second lecture, I examined those listeners who were eager to obtain study points. Most of the content did reach the audience, and it is obviously easy to follow on practical things and pure facts, like that Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales.

An abstract concept such as free knowledge is a different thing: for about half of the examinees had severe difficulties picking the right multiple choice answer. And as a matter of fact, doesn’t the expression ‘free knowledge’ sound like ‘free access for everybody’, ‘sharing knowledge freely in an open way’? I always emphasise – and maybe I should even more – that our ‘free knowledge/content/culture’ is a very specific concept, that the word ‘free’ should be in quotation marks with a clear, short definition.

Joint seminar of UEA and WMNL on free knowledge

Marek Blahus in Rotterdam

‘Libera Scio’ was the title of a seminar organized by Wikimedia Nederland together with the World Esperanto Association (UEA) in Rotterdam. Marek Blahus and I presented the Wikimedia movement, multilingual Wikipedia and above all the secret ingredient of Wikipedia: free knowledge.

The UEA holds an open day twice a year in its headquarters; it is usually on Saturday, and on Sunday some guests from abroad still stay in town. For about a dozen people (age 20 to 70) joint us for a tight schedule with lots of information and exercises. The participants were not only impressed by Wikipedia’s size (and the size of Wikimedia Commons) but also by the many ways you can go wrong when it comes to copyright.

Unexpected reencounter

Wikipedia class in Antwerp, 2007. From the scene in question only my left ear is visible. (Picture: Yves Nevelsteen, CC-BY-SA)

In early summer 2007 I travelled to Flanders. The Esperanto club of Antwerp had its 100 years anniversary, and I was invited for a lecture on the history of that language. The weekend included a morning with Wikipedia class.  Interested persons were mentored, except by me, also by Yves Nevelsteen and Chuck Smith, the founder of Wikipedia in Esperanto (Vikipedio).

It was not so much a class like a lesson, we also lacked the teaching aids for that, but we guided the people personally. I was occupied among others with an elderly Flemish lady, who attended with her new laptop and told me about her father.

The father I had met in the early 1990s, a couple of years before his dead. A true citizen of the world, founder of a school in Belgian Congo, a very respected and friendly member of the Esperanto community. With his pursuit of knowledge he would have been enthusiast about Wikipedia, she said. Friends wanted her to write an article on him, but she was in doubt that it was really a good idea to write about relatives.

The morning opened my eyes for the difficulties most people have with contributing to Wikipedia. So the focus of my guidance was less editing but actively using Wikipedia. At the end I wanted the mentees to recapitulate what they have learned. I asked the Flemish lady to search in Vikipedio the name of her father. Even if there is no article on him, maybe one of his works is mentioned elsewhere.

She did, and via a redirect we came to an article on her father, indeed. (I shouldn’t have been wondering, but I may have intuitively thought that she already had searched.) It was an even rather extensive article, with photograph and web link.

Telling this story I love to ask my listeners what the lady did in this moment spontaneously. Men suppose that she immediately edited the article. Or saved it on the hard disk. Or made a bookmark in the browser. Only women conject, as unanimously as aptly, that she burst into tears.

This reaction of a Wikipedia reader may be not representative. But it always reminds me of the fact that we have responsibility for our texts and never know, who is reading them with what eyes.

[Appeared in: Wikimedia Deutschland e.V.: Alles über Wikipedia und die Menschen hinter der größten Enzyklopädie der Welt. Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 2011, pp. 125-127. The original title of the text above is referring to ‘Unverhofftes Wiedersehen‘, a calendar story by Johann Peter Hebel.]

A proposal to UNESCO in the 1960s

New York, 1966: Ivo Lapenna (left) with the UN vice secretary and two UEA collaborators

In 1964, Ivo Lapenna became president of Universal Esperanto Association. The law professor, Croatian by birth and then living in London, was a charismatic leader who wanted to bring the Esperanto movement forward by extensive outreach. For that he was not shy of spending some money of the association and try something at UNESCO, the UN organization for education, science and culture.

By then, UEA was in ‘consulting relations’ with UNESCO, as where many other non governmental organizations. In 1954 UNESCO had recognized the accomplishments of the Esperanto movement for international understanding.  Now Ivo Lapenna wanted UNESCO to tell the member states that they introduce Esperanto as a foreign language in schools.

For this proposal UEA and its ten thousands of members collected ultimately nearly one million signatures of individuals and signatures of the representatives of 3,800 organizations. In October 1966, a delegation led by Lapenna visited the UN vice secretary Chakravarthy Narasimhan to hand over the most important signatures.

Mr. Narasimhan explained that only member states can add the question of Esperanto as a school subject to the agenda of the general assembly. Lapenna mentioned a paragraph in the rules of procedure that the UN secretary himself can add an item to the agenda. Mr. Narasimhan answered that that relates only to matters concerning the secretary, e.g. the UN construction in New York.

Lapenna insisted that the rights of the secretary are ‘not limited’ and that ‘being a professor of international law I know certainly what is UN and what are the powers of the different organs.’ Lapenna wanted the vice secretary to send at least an official UN communiqué to the member states about the Esperanto proposal. None of this happened, in spite of some angry letters by Lapenna the following years and his complains about ‘linguistically privileged’ UN officials and their sabotage.

Looking back, I asked a former collaborator of UEA what to make up of the petition of the 1960s – pricy in years when the association suffered some severe financial shortcomings. The collaborator explained that Lapenna was never so naive that he believed he could get through with it. But Lapenna wanted to have a subject to tell about to the press, and something to mobilize the Esperanto speakers and have them occupied with. And of course, one might add, to show that Lapenna was a capable and agile leader.

(Ziko van Dijk: 1966: Propono al UN. Kial Lapenna ne farigxis la heroo de Novjorko. In: (the same) La Asocio. Skizoj kaj studoj pri la historio de UEA. Flandra Esperanto-Ligo, Antwerp 2008, pp. 277-287.)

Decennial ABC: H as in Hagiography

Who are greatest thinkers of history, according to Britannica?

A hagiography is a biographic text about a holy person, and typically the term refers to the vita of a Christian saint in the middle ages. In the modern context the term is polemic in nature, as nowadays famous people are admired but usually not considered holy. Instructional texts, and encyclopedias originated from schoolbooks, long presented historical persons as models for good behaviour, or for the opposite. Those black-white-descriptions did not have much room for differentiation, for a critical approach, or for impartiality. The immaculateness of the person was partially the reason for including her in the canon.

Eventually, some very positive descriptions had more base motives. Dennis de Coetlogon (Universal history, 1740s) seemingly expected a reward when praising for example the religious commitment of Edward Howard in the article ‘Heraldry’, or when Anthony Browne, Viscount of Montagu, in ‘Nobility’ is called ‘that excellent nobleman’. [1]

A peticular problem in small linguistic communities: It is not always easy to obtain reliable sources for a biography, or a neutral person to write about some else. This seems to be the case with the article ”Cseh, Andreo’ in the 1934 Enciklopedio de Esperanto.

Andreo Cseh (1895-1979), in the 1930s

There we read that the Catholic priest Cseh, an Hungarian from Rumania, in 1920 elaborated his famous teaching method for Esperanto, and that later in Sweden started his triumphant apostleship through various countries. His courses had such a success that the newspapers wrote about a renaissance of Esperanto. [2]

The entry was signed by Julia Isbrücker, who together with her husband Jan supported Cseh’s work. In later years, the adult children of the Isbrückers suspected their mother of having an inappropriate relationship with Cseh…

Writing about oneself or about good friends meets a lot of resistance among Wikipedians, although it is not definitely prohibited. In my duties as a mentor at German Wikipedia, I once had a mentee writing about a professor of law (professors are ‘relevant’ by definition). She asked me whether her text was good, and I said it was fine. A minor thing: She wrote that the person obtained his PhD and became a Dr. iur. As the person is a jurist, and as this is the usual title in Germany for a law PhD, the expression ‘Dr. iur.’ is superfluous and can be dropped. After some days, she replied: ‘I have asked again, and Herr Professor said that he does not want that.’ (The poor girl was obviously the assistant of the professor.)

No doubt that Wikipedia is sufficiently critical about Jimmy Wales; the article about him was created in June 2003. But how did the Encyclopaedia Britannica deal with ‘their’ people’? In the 1950s Britannica had a book series ‘Great Books’, and its prospectus presented a number of small portraits: Platon, Shakespeare, Freud and other great thinkers. I wondered, who were the three men in the center of the picture, in the big portraits. Indeed: the publishers of Encyclopaedia Britannica. [3]


Previously: A as in Advertisement, …, G as in Google


[1] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, p. 153.

[2] Enciklopedio de Esperanto, 1933/1934, s.v. ‘Cseh, Andreo’.

[3] Harvey Einbinder: The Myth of the Britannica. MacGibbon & Kee, London 1964 (reprint 1972), p. 337.

Why Esperanto? Why Wikipedia? Explaining success

Why is Wikipedia the most successful encyclopedia? A comparison with the constructed language Esperanto might be useful also to enlighten our view on history in general.

Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, in 1887

Esperanto, published first in 1887, is far away from being the “second language for everybody”. But among the more than 1000 projects it is the utmost successful. If you ask an Esperanto speaker why this is so, he will answer that Esperanto is based on the best principles to construct a new language. And this is so because the founder of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof, knew a lot of languages, and, of course, because he was a ‘genius’. The creators of other projects, on the contrary, introduced bad principles (a different word building system, a different orthography etc.).

If you ask followers of these other projects, you will get a different picture. As André Martinet once said, a French linguist and advocate of Interlingua: Interlingua did not have a chance to show its potential, with Esperanto being  already so big and attracting all possible adherents of a constructed language.

Why Esperanto?

It is a common experience: successful people explain their success with their own superiority, with the good principles they follow in life. Less successful people explain their fate with bad luck and other exterior factors. They ‘externalize’ their (real or perceived) failure.

Regarding the case of Esperanto more closely, it is obvious that Esperanto is successful because ‘it works’. But there were other factors: (1) Zamenhof could afford to make Esperanto propaganda for two whole years, and spent quite a lot of money for it. (2) He presented Esperanto not as a mere tool, e.g. for more efficient commercial correspondence, but as a way to real internationalism and the fraternisation of all mankind. (3) Esperanto was born at a lucky moment in history, after the decline of once glorious Volapük.

How about Wikipedia? A Wikipedian will likely tell you that Wikipedia has grown so enormously because of its good principles. On the other hand, a project like Citizendium (of ex Wikipedian Larry Sanger) failed due to its poor principles, such as mandatory registration.

Why Wikipedia?

This may be true, but the similarities to Esperanto are striking. (1) Jimmy Wales invested a lot of money and time in Wikipedia; (2) he combined it with the strong idealism of ‘giving free access to the sum of all human knowledge’; (3) and Wikipedia came into the world at the right time. As Wales himself once said: If the traditional encyclopedias like Britannica had been online and collaborative more early, it would have been difficult for Wikipedia to challenge them.

Louis de Beaufront, in 1906
Louis de Beaufront, in 1906

Another similarity between Esperanto and Wikipedia history is the person of a ‘traitor’. Besides Zamenhof, the most important person in Esperanto history was a certain Louis de Beaufront. He was the ‘organiser’; the writer of the first decent text-book, the publisher of the magazine L’espérantiste. Without him, as an Esperanto historian said, ‘we all wouldn’t be esperantists.’

But in 1907/1908, de Beaufront left Esperanto and presented a new project of a constructed language, Ido. He threw wild accusations against Zamenhof and the Esperanto community. Ido never became a real competitor, and in 1935, de Beaufront died almost forgotten by esperantists and idists. He could have been the highly appraised number two in the champion project, but he wanted to be the number one in his own.

In 1998 the annual world convention of Esperanto took place in France, one hundred years after de Beaufront had founded the first national Esperanto association. The French esperantists still refused honouring de Beaufront, the ‘traitor’.

I hope that Larry Sanger will make it possible to avoid such an outcome of Wikipedia history.

(See also: Ziko van Dijk: The geek shall inherit the earth. Esperanto-movado kaj vikipedia komunumo en la epoko de la Interreto. In: Detlev Blanke, Ulrich Lins (eds.): La arto labori kune. Festlibro por Humphrey Tonkin. Universala Esperanto-Asocio, Rotterdam 2010, pp. 574-584.)