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Wikileaks in libraries – notes from a classroom discussion

Debbie Rabina, LIS Professor at Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science (and my colleague on the Depository Library Council!), after reading our post A librarian reacts to “A librarian reacts to wikileaks” and doing the Wikileaks and Libraries survey (which is still open BTW so please take a minute to fill it in!), decided to survey her LIS students. Below are responses from 2 of her students about the class discussion.

Wikileaks in libraries – notes from a classroom discussion
Debbie Rabina

Months after the Wikileaks release of US State Department cables, having read countless accounts in the media, as well as a few course readings, twenty Master’s students in an information policy class at Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science, came to class three of the course unit on limiting information access in a democracy.

I chose to open the class with a survey. Based on the survey that James sent to libraries, I presented students with the following three questions:

  • Should libraries include the wikileaks cable site in their catalogs and provide a link to it?
  • Should libraries download the wikileaks cables and archive them?
  • Is it important for libraries to preserve and give access to wikileaks cables?

Using classroom clickers students entered their anonymous vote. The results for all three questions indicated that around 70% of students felt that cataloging, archiving, preserving and treating wikileaks as a collection was not important, but most students agreed that the library should provide access to wikileaks through Internet to a remote location where the cables will be stored by someone else.

Quite surprised by this response we held a discussion centered on collection development and social responsibility. Below are responses of two students to the classroom discussion that evening.

Lauren’ response:

Take a group of mostly liberal-minded New York City library school students and give them a survey pertaining to WikiLeaks and libraries. What sort of reaction would you expect them to have?

This exact social experiment occurred recently in my Information Policy class. Using anonymous survey technology, a group of 17 students answered four questions about WikiLeaks: one asking asked about our general opinions of the website leaking thousands of diplomat cables, followed by three questions about libraries cataloging, archiving, and preserving access to WikiLeaks. When it came to whether libraries should catalog and link to WikiLeaks and/or download and archive them, the class was split pretty much evenly. However, the results of the last question were truly staggering: when asked “Do you think it is important for libraries to preserve and give access to WikiLeaks cables?” the class voted a resounding yes, 16 to 1.

So what does this mean? How do a group of library students see the importance of preserving WikiLeaks, yet are so split on cataloging and archiving them? Everyone in the class recognizes the significance of these documents and understands to some degree that they need to be preserved. (Who knows how long the WikiLeaks site will be around? As a generation of digital natives, the students of our class are painfully aware how quickly websites pop-up and disappear. As the U.S. government prepares to try Manning and Assange, the lifespan of the information seems to shrink.)

I am one of the 17 who voted against cataloging and archiving WikiLeaks, but was in favor of libraries in general preserving access to them. I can only speak for myself, but my reasoning was simple: my own professional background stems from working in an art library and a German Jewry library. To me, the most important thing about collections is scope—WikiLeaks would not be appropriate for the scope of the libraries I have worked in. However after our class discussion, I see the fallacy in using scope as the highest value factor in collection development: all of us in the class agreed that libraries had a responsibility to that preserve access to WikiLeaks, but we apparently expect someone else to do it.

Maybe more libraries need to take a closer look at WikiLeaks and consider archiving and cataloging this collection. After all, there are thousands of documents available, most of which we as a nation (and beyond) haven’t even scratched the surface of. There could be information there that does pertain to the art world, or to the history of German-speaking Jewry. Or more likely, not. But upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that if libraries don’t preserve this material, we will never find out.

Rini’s response:

I did not have a strong opinion one way or the other when I first read these questions, and I admit that I waffled between yea and nay on each of them. I think the main reason that I did not have a strong feeling about any of them is that I don’t think I, personally, had enough information about the whole thing. Of course, I had seen a few newspaper articles about the data dump – most of them sporting relatively sensational headlines that belied the fairly dry content of the articles. And throwing out Assange’s sex-capades certainly obfuscated matters – information completely unrelated to serious issues at hand. But I hadn’t really given that much thought to the implications of the situation until we discussed it in class.

At first, I was disinclined to make it the responsibility of libraries/librarians to provide access to the materials. The data dump (editor’s note: “dump” is a misnomer. See our previous post for more explanation) seemed rather like offering too much information to be useful unless someone took a good deal of time to sift through all of it. However, further reflection and a little digging on the Web has me firmly on the side of protecting this information for current and future users. The problem of cataloging is a concern because of the time and labor commitment that would require. However, there is a Wikipedia article that has done a lot of the preliminary sorting, so it might not be that problematic to create at least a preliminary catalog of the materials.

That said, the final question for me comes down to whether this is a public library access issue, as in current affairs; or a research library issue, as in archiving for posterity. I come down firmly on BOTH sides. In the moment, the public should have full access to “all the data, all the time” in some form that assures that full access as well as governmental transparency are assured. For posterity, a research library should be able to provide full access to all the material for in-depth journalistic and/or scholarly research of the sort that might provide more accurate historical descriptions of a particular moment in time.

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