The Wikipedians needed just eight minutes to consign the "2011 Virginia earthquake" to history - the elapsed time between the temblor and the first bulletin in the online encyclopedia.
How do they know that Tuesday's event near Mineral, Va., was the earthquake of the year for the state? What if it is forgotten after a monstrous seismic disaster that flattens, say, Richmond in October?
Never mind. The service that Wikipedia provides in times such as these is to transform breaking news into remembrance of things past.
Alvaro Duran, 27, is a typical Wikipedian, one of the 88,000 more-or-less regular volunteer contributors and editors.
Duran is beginning a master's program in Great Books this week at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. On Tuesday, he had just returned to his apartment in Towson, Md., after running errands when he felt the quake. One of his first instincts was not to stand in a doorway but to create an entry for the encyclopedia.
He typed: "The 2011 Virginia earthquake was a magnitude 5.8 earthquake with an epicenter near Mineral, Virginia." He footnoted a link to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Duran's one-sentence article went up at 2:03 p.m. The USGS timed the earthquake at 1:51. Within the next 20 minutes, 30 more Wikipedians chimed in, adding and subtracting sentences. By late Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of tweaks and fixes had been made to the article, which now printed out at 7 1/2 pages. It had been viewed more than 80,000 times.
Technically, Duran's bulletin was not the first Wiki entry. At 1:59 p.m., another, anonymous, Wikipedian had revised the separate, existing article.
Living just about 30 miles from Mineral, in Spotsylvania County, frequent contributor Bill Warrick was too busy the day of the quake bracing for aftershocks and checking on family to join the communal Wiki history-making.
He started contributing edits to the article Duran had created. Warrick was particularly concerned that there wasn't enough local information from Virginia. "My wife sometimes looks at the time I spend," says Warrick, the author of several Wiki articles and a contributing editor on many more. "I tell her I enjoy Wikipedia."
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