In a win for crowd sourced activism, the National Library yesterday agreed to change its classification for books relating to WikiLeaks after a weekend campaign to identify why the Library was classifying WikiLeaks material as relating to “extremist websites”.

Twitter user @nyxpersephone first raised the issue on Saturday after wondering why the Cataloguing-in-Publication record for Andrew Fowler’s book The Most Dangerous Man In The World carried the description “extremist websites”. An online discussion involving WikiLeaks supporters, librarians and archivists spanned the weekend (Wikileaks Central has the full story), with the clarification that Cataloguing-in-Publication records are in effect agreed between the relevant publisher and the National Library, which uses the Library of Congress’s subject classification system. “Extremist websites” usually relate to jihadi or neo-fascist hate sites.

The discussion produced a sort-of related issue. Since 1996, the NLA has archived websites in its Pandora archive, using the criteria:

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4.1.1 To be selected for national preservation, a significant proportion of a work should

  • be about Australia; or
  • be on a subject of social, political, cultural, religious, scientific or economic significance and relevance to Australia and be written by an Australian author; or
  • be written by an Australian of recognised authority and constitute a contribution to international knowledge.

4.1.2 It may be located on either an Australian or an overseas server. Australian authorship or editorship alone is insufficient grounds for national preservation. In the case of online publications, content is the pre-eminent factor determining selection.

The WikiLeaks site, however, isn’t in Pandora, despite appearing to meet two of the criteria and, partly, all three. Asked why, a very helpful spokeswoman from the National Library provided the following response from the Library’s Director-General, Ms Anne-Marie Schwirtlich:

The National Library of Australia decided, when the WikiLeaks material was first released, not to archive it in Pandora because, at the time, it was subject to legal action. Also, it was being picked up by other web archiving programs internationally, including the Internet Archive and so was in no danger of being lost.

“Because of the copyright conditions under which the National Library of Australia operates, we can only collect online material for which we have explicit permission from the rights owner, unlike many other web archiving programs internationally which have legal deposit coverage for online materials. The ‘ownership’ of the content was not clearly with WikiLeaks and we foresaw difficulties in identifying rights owners and in getting permission from them even if we could identify them.

The NLA’s risk-averse approach to copyright has some basis: while even WikiLeaks’s strongest critics haven’t pursued the “copyright” issue particularly vigorously in relation to the diplomatic cables, Guantanamo files, war logs and combat footage, WikiLeaks has also released information from corporations such as the Swiss bank for tax dodgers, Julius Baer, and Trafigura. When such information is being “picked up by other web archiving programs” there appears less of a case for the NLA to expose itself to possible legal action by archiving WikiLeaks and material originally the property of private firms.

However, its reasoning does raise the more troubling issue of the distinction between WikiLeaks and the mainstream media. Pandora archives most Australian media outlets, including Crikey, and has therefore archived thousands of stories involving material that would fail the same test WikiLeaks failed. In particular, a site like Crikey that tends to publish, or link to, information provided by corporate or government whistleblowers rather than merely quoting from it, would notionally fail that same test of leading to the archiving of material for which the owners had not provided permission.

This isn’t to play “gotcha” with the NLA, and in any event the impact is limited, but it seems an arbitrary distinction between archiving sites that use whistleblower information, and a site that actually publishes whistleblower information.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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