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A Librarian reacts to “A Librarian Reacts to WikiLeaks”

WikiLeaks "see no evil" poster

**Editor’s note: A version of this article was published originally at http://freegovinfo.info/node/3178

Thanks to Bill Sleeman for his Jan. 24 article on WikiLeaks. His parsing is thought-provoking, but incomplete.

I’d like to add some context to Sleeman’s op-ed because I think he conflates and ignores several issues surrounding Wikileaks the organization and the leaked US State Department cables themselves.

Sleeman ignores the information and focuses instead on WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and the actions of members of the American Library Association — Al Kagan’s American Libraries Magazine article as well as Larry Roman’s comment/response offer a good review of the ALA Midwinter conference WikiLeaks dustup. Sleeman repeatedly suggests that we have only one choice: “embrace” WikiLeaks or reject it. This is a false choice and misdirection. In doing this, Sleeman has adopted the strategy being used by those who wish to suppress the information by distracting us from it and focusing instead on the messenger.

graphic of computer screen images of Wikileaks story

photo by Nicholas Wang/CreativeCommons

Libraries should be focused on how to address the information needs of their users. Different libraries will have different answers to that question, which is as it should be.

1] Sleeman casts his piece as a minority opinion. However, if the preliminary data on my WikiLeaks survey hold true, then Sleeman is not an “outlier.” The documents community seems to be split 50/50 on whether or not it is important for libraries to collect and give access to the cables — and only 3 libraries so far say that they’ve even cataloged the WikiLeaks cable site. When Sleeman says that the situation, “demands more careful parsing than the library community has been willing to do,” he is, in one stroke, mischaracterizing and demeaning his colleagues.

2] The cables are not a “dump” but are in fact being actively vetted and redacted by WikiLeaks and the news organizations with which WL is working ( the Guardian, der Spiegel, New York Times, El Pais, and Le Monde). Only a very small number have actually been released (3891 of 251,287 to date). Those cables, while technically classified, are now publicly available to anyone and analysis by journalists around the world continues to grow (see WikiRiver as well as the news organizations’ sites linked to at the end of this piece).

By ignoring the role of journalists and newspapers in the vetting and release of the cables, Sleeman tries to turn the issue into one of Assange vs. the world. I don’t think Sleeman would suggest that we should ignore other leaked materials, but maybe he would? Does he object to any publication of leaked information in any newspaper, or is there something about this particular release that he finds objectionable? Does he oppose libraries containing any leaked information? He does not say. As Steven Aftergood wrote recently, “[T]he bulk of the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, never formally underwent declassification review . . . This means that every public and private library in the country that has a copy of the Papers is technically in possession of currently classified material.” Would Sleeman say that we should remove all versions of the Pentagon Papers from our libraries — including the 4,100 pages of the Pentagon Papers read into the record of the Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds by then Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK)?

3] There have always been leaks of government information, most often for political purposes or individual vendetta (Pentagon Papers and the Plame affair are but the most infamous). There are (admittedly weak) laws on the books to protect whistle blowers but none  to protect military whistleblowers (hence PFC Bradley Manning, the alleged cable leaker, has been held without charge at Quantico Marine base since July, 2010). These cables are not “stolen” per se, but leaked information. Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous leaker of government secrets, has praised WikiLeaks and their work.

4] Researchers and the public are justly intrigued with this kind of information. The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series is one of libraries’ most highly sought-after titles, so it only makes sense that library users would want access to the cables and their cache of diplomatic information far in advance of any FRUS publication — which is supposed to be “no more than 30 years after the event recorded” but which is currently far behind schedule in violation of the law (see Aftergood, “State Dept Series Falls Farther Behind Schedule”). These materials will certainly be soughtafter by researchers and the public in the future. But who will ensure that they have that access if libraries do not?

Sleeman uses the  analogy of the information on the web being like “toothpaste from a tube,” saying that, once information is “out there,” it “isn’t going back.” But this  is only half of the story. While it is true that one cannot guarantee that information, once released, can be successfully erased, it is also true– and more importantly so — that one cannot guarantee the preservation or integrity of information without explicit effort. This has important ramifications for libraries as they address the needs of their users. In a year (or 10 years, or more) when a researcher wants to see the WikiLeaks documents behind news stories and books, will the researcher have a place to go where those documents have been preserved and authenticated as unaltered from the WikiLeaks release of those documents? Or will documents have disappeared or become unreadable or altered over time because they lacked adequate curation? Will there be documents, but no way to know if they are the ones that were used by earlier researchers? When FRUS releases some of these cables, will researchers be able to compare them to the WikiLeaks versions to verify accuracy of earlier research?

Libraries have a role to play in preserving information over time for their users. Sleeman would ignore these issues; he says, “I am not willing to embrace the many calls in the library community to harvest and preserve this material locally.”

5] Wikileaks staff and volunteers are transparency activists, according to the WikiLeaks about page

WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth. We are a young organisation that has grown very quickly, relying on a network of dedicated volunteers around the globe . . .

WikiLeaks has sustained and triumphed against legal and political attacks designed to silence our publishing organisation, our journalists and our anonymous sources. The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history. We derive these principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, Article 19 inspires the work of our journalists and other volunteers. It states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. We agree, and we seek to uphold this and the other Articles of the Declaration.

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We cannot, of course, “know” the motivations of Assange or other WikiLeaks staff or those who leaked the documents, any more than we can know the motivations behind other leaks or even the motivations behind the official release of documents in FRUS. Journalists and librarians can, however, document what we do know and provide that as context to any document or publication. As librarians, we do not “embrace the WikiLeaks initiative” when we point to it or even when we add the documents themselves to our collections. Libraries have information on all points of view created for all kinds of reasons. Part of what we do is document the record of society for others to use and evaluate. Our role as librarians is to select what is significant and give it context. (Part of that context is the bibliographic metadata that describes information and its source; part of the context is the rest of our collections that we build by subject and discipline.) Isn’t it self-evident that the WikiLeaks material has become significant regardless of the motivation of those who leaked it?

Perhaps a close analogy here is to the collections of emails of scientists studying climate change (which werein fact stolen, not leaked). In both cases, I can see different libraries making different decisions about including WikiLeaks or those emails in their collections. I would hope libraries that chose to collect the emails would include the several official reports that exonerated the scientists from the wrongdoing that the thieves attempted to impute. In the case of WikiLeaks, I would hope that a library would include news reports, State Department publications, and robust metadata etc., giving additional context to the cables.

6] Unintended Consequences

There was a fascinating debate hosted by DemocracyNow in December, 2010 between Steven Aftergood and Glenn Greenwald in which Aftergood laid out many of the same arguments that Sleeman does about agencies becoming more restrictive because of the cable leak. However, I think Greenwald’s arguments countering this are equally feasible.

Again, however, Sleeman is misdirecting us from the issues facing libraries. Now that the information is available and has been widely used and quoted, libraries need to deal with the existence of the information. While it is interesting to think about whether or not the information should have been leaked and what the consequences of the leaks might be, those issues are unrelated to the issue of preservation of and access to that information.

7] Quality, Provenance, Authenticity:

Sleeman says, “Yet many in the library community seem eager to point to, to acquire, and to preserve this content without any of the usual assurances regarding quality or origin that we would otherwise require when making a collection development decision.”

The State Department has not claimed that any of these were invented, modified, falsified or otherwise not authentic. If anything, the official response has implied that the cables are indeed authentic.

In the digital age, it is particularly important that libraries document the how and where and who of acquisitions so that users can evaluate them accurately. It would be wrong for libraries to say “here are cables released by the State Department” but it is right to say, “here are cables released by WikiLeaks and claimed to be leaked from the State Department.” That is an accurate description of their origin.

Related to this, let’s be clear: no librarian is suggesting that we should raid the State Department of all its cables. Instead, many librarians are saying that, given the prominence, public availability, and apparent authenticity of this material, and given that reputable news organizations have published the cables as well as articles based on these materials, these are legitimate materials for us to consider providing to our users.

One option that libraries have in a situation like this is to select and acquire digital files and preserve them without making them publicly available yet. Think of this as preserving with an embargo — something that many libraries’ special collections units do on a regular basis. This ensures that the materials are preserved, but allows the library to put off the decision to make them available until more information on their authenticity and provenance and legal status is available. Preservation does not happen by accident. Preserving the materials now for possible future release is both prudent and cautious.

8] Preservation:

Sleeman does not address the preservation of these materials. Perhaps he hopes that, even though the toothpaste is out of the tube, it will slowly wither away and get lost. As noted above, I think it is important that the recently released WikiLeaks information be preserved for future scholars. The fact of the matter is that someone will have to preserve this information if it is to remain accessible. As noted above, preservation does not happen by accident.

That means the key question we should be asking is: Who will preserve it?

I am not suggesting that every library should collect these materials. Many libraries will find these materials out of scope for their collections. The strength of a community of libraries with many different collections is being able to make preservation decisions based on the needs of our users. If we rely on others (other organizations, other libraries, other individuals) to preserve material that is important to our users, we may find that we are losing important information (for a similar case in point see “While BBC Wants To Kill Off A Bunch Of Websites, Geeks Quickly Archive Them”).

If we rely on a very small number of huge digital repositories, we may find ourselves without an adequate voice in their preservation decisions.

By building our own digital infrastructure, we put ourselves in control of decisions that affect our user communities. That, in my opinion, is what we should be doing. With that infrastructure in place, we should make decisions about WikiLeaks based on the needs of our users — not based on our like or dislike of Julian Assange.

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photo of Stanford librarian James Jacobs

James Jacobs is the government documents librarian at Stanford University and blogger/cofounder of Free Government Information (http://freegovinfo.info). He is incoming chair of the Depository Library Council (http://www.fdlp.gov/home/about/61-dlc), an advisory group to the Public Printer of the US. He is a fierce advocate for permanent free public access to government information. The rest of his bio may be found at: http://freegovinfo.info/about/jrjacobs