FIFTEEN YEARS ago even its founder expressed doubts that it would work. But now, as the annual Wikimania conference gets into full swing in Italy this weekend, Wikipedia is acknowledged to be one of the websites that has changed the world.

From politics and sport – the death of Jo Cox and the UEFA European Championship featured in last week's most viewed pages – to film, popular culture and the downright bizarre – how else would we hear about the 14 year old boy scout who built a nuclear reactor in his shed, or the cat named George who became an accredited member of the British Board of Neuro Linguistic Programming – Wikipedia has gone from a quirky outsider to an essential online resource.

With more than 15 billion times every month across the globe, the wiki, or collaborative website, version of the traditional encyclopedia was founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger on 15 January 2001 with the grand aim of "democratising" information and making it available to all for free.

With the help of a growing army of volunteer and largely anonymous editors, who both create and amend articles, it had clocked up its1000 article in the first month with 20,000 created in the first year. It's English site alone now has over five million articles and if it were in print, it would stretch to 2, 293 volumes, almost 70 times the number of volumes of the Encyclopedia Británica that are currently available.

It is now run by the charitable Wikimedia, organiser of the Wikimania conference which this weekend was offering sessions on everything from the role of wiki projects in preserving culture to the emergence of resident wiki University professors and wiki-addictions to thousands of volunteer editors from countries across the globe.

Founder Jimmy Wales, who is attending the conference, told the Sunday Herald: "It's a time for our volunteers from many countries and speaking many languages to look at issues, celebrate those special moment and then take that back to their communities. What are the ways they can impact on the world? What are else can they be doing?"

Partnerships with galleries and museums is an important area Wikipedia is developing, he added.

"We are not just a crazy website anymore and we are working closely with them," said Wales. "A lot of museums have got really good photos of their exhibits for example and we can take some of that material to a worldwide audience. We now have Wikipedians-in-residence who have been working with curators to make sure they understand how to make use of us. We can take hundreds of materials and write articles in languages like Swahili for example."

And those partnerships also offer another way of opening up all important funding. Currently the website relies largely on small private donations and though Wales insists finances are good, he admits its always challenging.

"We need to take it seriously because we want to make sure that Wikipedia is around forever," he added. "It's part of our fundamental mission that every single person on the planet should have access to a free online encyclopaedia. We just wouldn't even think about changing that."

Wales has also spoken out about issues around censorship, visiting China, where Wikipedia has been blocked to meet with officials. However he claims that the biggest barriers to freedom of information is the number of people who lack internet access.

"People are still coming online and in the next 20 years we expect the same number of people to be able to access the internet as can access the radio," he added.

Joe Sutherland, 23, from Aberdeen, first started contributing to pages when he spotted Wikipedia was missing an article on his favourite local footballer. He found it addictive and as a teenager was soon spending several hours a day collaborating with others on articles about football, music and popular culture.

By the time he was doing his Standard Grades he was a site admin and four years ago was given the title of 'over-sighter', giving him advanced privileges when editing content.

"Now I have the power to delete pages and I can block IP addresses if there is some kind of serious dispute. It might be about taking down entries that could be defamatory or removing the date of birth of a minor," he explained. "Most of it is non contentious stuff but doing it helps out. We have an important place in the community, and we help it all to run more smoothly."

He believes the democratic nature of the site – anyone can edit or submit an article – is its enduring appealing and the sense of contributing to the common good is something people quickly become passionate about.

"I wrote one article about Julius Morris Green, a former prisoner of war [ a Scot who worked as a spy for MI9 during his time at Colditz Castle] and I liked the idea that I people could learn from what I found out," he said. "You're filling in the gaps. Being able to spread your knowledge is a key part of it."


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