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University of Wisconsin–Madison

A Librarian reacts to WikiLeaks

**Editor’s note: Mr. Sleeman’s article/below has generated a vigorous discussion among librarians and others at the blog FreeGovernmentInformation (FGI).  You can follow that discussion here.**

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Following the release of thousands of classified diplomatic documents, the library community has seemingly embraced WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange as one of our own.

The American Library Association (ALA) which held its annual winter meeting in San Diego in early January saw several resolutions from various internal groups urging that the larger Association condemn the Library of Congress for blocking access to the WikiLeaks site on library computers and calling for the support of Assange and his efforts.  While the final version of the resolution toned down some of the outright support for WikiLeaks, the reaction of many of my colleagues to the WikiLeaks dump causes me concern.

Although committed to open access for government information, I have been hesitant to follow the library trend on WikiLeaks. Admittedly this makes me something of an outlier on the issue in the library community.

With over 120,000 libraries in the United States I cannot profess to speak for all librarians. However, all librarians, myself included, envision ourselves as zealous advocates of open access so we are generally supportive of any effort to distribute officially declassified government information no matter how suspect or unfamiliar the organization. In fact, the ALA as an organization has a long history of successfully advocating for open access to government information, and more recently has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts to reduce the over classification of government information.

Also, being of a generally liberal bent, most librarians agree that far too much government information is classified; this includes efforts by federal agencies to re-classify material already released to the public. But yet….yet…. the WikiLeaks document dump seems to present a situation that in my opinion demands more careful parsing than the library community has been willing to do.

Open access to stolen property?

One concern I have is that many librarians have been too quick to claim that the distribution of the WikiLeaks material via the web makes the documents’ classification status irrelevant. As a librarian who has worked with classified materials, I know that this view is simply not a correct understanding of how government classification works. I think advocates for responsible open access polices for government information – including news organizations and library associations – will be harmed in the eyes of those we want to influence by making such an argument.

While it is true that the WikiLeaks information is now “out there” and that the content – like toothpaste from a tube – isn’t going back, an unauthorized release is wholly different than official declassification through FOIA or by regulation or statute.  To suggest otherwise is simply to misstate the issue. The WikiLeaks documents remain classified and are (at least as of this writing) viewed by the federal government as stolen goods. For librarians to maintain otherwise is akin to suggesting that once a new car is stolen from an auto dealer’s lot it belongs to the thief because the prior property status of the car is “irrelevant.”

Further, the quick condemnation by some in the library community of our colleagues at The Library of Congress for following federal law regarding access to classified information is unwarranted.

The Library of Congress, as well as most other federal libraries, had no choice but to block or limit access on government owned computers because that is the law. Some have tried to argue that Library of Congress should have chosen open access rather than “censorship,” but that is a false choice. With the WikiLeaks release we are dealing with stolen government property, not declassified information.  There is no inherent right of access to stolen property. The Library of Congress, instead of being condemned, should be congratulated for following the law and thereby protecting their staff and their patrons. They moved rapidly to get a handle on the situation and to institute a process that allows researchers at the library access to this content going forward.

Examining WikiLeaks’ motivation

Another question that the library community should be asking: what is Julian Assange’s motivation for this effort? It is not completely clear. Is he a whistleblower combating government secrecy, a journalist, an archivist? In a November 2010 story in the Christian Science Monitor, writer Peter Grier drew attention to Assange’s own shifting views of the intent of WikiLeaks.

Is Assange the Daniel Ellsberg of the Internet? Some librarians want to claim so and certainly Assange and Ellsberg seem to share a kinship in their commitment to providing access to secret government information, as was expressed in a joint interview conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review.

But the lack of clarity of purpose from the leader of WikiLeaks raises doubts in this librarian’s mind as to the similarity of these two individuals’ goals. Should we even care about any possible bias on WikiLeaks? As librarians we should care, not so much about WikiLeaks per se but more importantly we should be concerned with what it says about our community to so willingly embrace the WikiLeaks initiative when we know so little about it.  In library information literacy programs we try to teach our students that when using Internet sources the need to continually question; to look beyond the surface and indentify any bias in a web site. Yet there seems to be little willingness on the part of some in the library community to do so here.

Finally, again looking at the WikiLeaks dump as a librarian, I am not willing to embrace the many calls in the library community to harvest and preserve this material locally. Particularly problematic for me is the fact that much of the recently released diplomatic material was stolen. We know less about how the  material on the banking industry, that the organization claims to have, was acquired.

Can any of this material be authenticated in a way that ensures that what we are reading on the screen represents the document as originally created? With digitized government information authentication is extremely important, but is that even possible with this material?  What do we tell researchers about any editorial decisions made regarding the release of these documents?  Do we really know what was included or excluded and why? And finally, will the support of the library community encourage others to steal and release more government information? Is that something we as a nation should desire?

WikiLeaks seems to be very reluctant to discuss how it operates, and were this  another type of resource — say perhaps a database about climate change — which we knew so little about, it is doubtful that a responsible librarian would recommend subscribing to it. 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. Finally, whether one agrees or not with the value of open access to government information, would we knowingly acquire stolen property for our library collections in any other situation?

Unintended consequences

What does the WikiLeaks dump portend for libraries and library users?

While overall I think the effect will be minimal, it does raise some issues that could have an impact on libraries. One result may be an increased effort by the federal government to institute greater controls over access to information. In the past two years President Obama has moved, albeit slowly, to change the atmosphere regarding classification in the federal government. But the WikiLeaks dump could, rather than leading to more openness, have the opposite effect, emboldening agencies and political figures to seek further limits on access.  That would certainly pose challenges for researchers.

The WikiLeaks release may also lead, as suggested by John Dvorak in a recent piece in PC Magazine, to a greater effort on the part of the federal government to control the Internet.

While WikiLeaks has proven that a mass distribution of government information on the Internet could not be stopped this time, next time may be different, and that sort of control of the Internet would be detrimental to all libraries and to our many users who count on us to provide them with access to the Internet.  Librarians also need to reconcile our commitment to open access with the realities of the Web.

Just because we believe in open access does not mean that we should embrace and encourage everything we find on the Internet.

We know better.

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Bill Sleeman is the Assistant Director for Technical Services at the Thurgood Marshall Law Library, the University of Maryland School of Law. He has been active in the American Library Association for over 25 years and has served in a number of elected and appointed Association leadership positions. He currently serves on the American Library Association’s Google Books Task Force. He is a past Chair of the Government Documents Round Table and was a 2007 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker.” More at: http://works.bepress.com/bill_sleeman/

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