Libraries are institutions with important values regarding information. They have their codes of ethics, which are derived from the broad field of information ethics and varies between countries.
And I quote the 2nd and 4th points:
“We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.”
“We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.”
With these values as the principles shaping its world-view, the information-society was quite shocked as the Library of Congress (LoC, the national library of the USA), which plays a major role in the ALA, has started filtering WikiLeaks on December 3rd. The filtering applies within the library – for its users and its staff.
As the library officially stated:
“The Library decided to block Wikileaks because applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information. Unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.”
Librarians around the country called the ALA to condemn this move and library users made some interesting suggestions, like the one that the user “mardish” posted in Reddit:
“So I’ve got this idea to print out the Wikileak Cables and put them in a binder and donate it to my local library. Think this could become a movement? […] If it’s in a library, and the federal government tries to take down Wikileaks, they’ll have to take down the libraries as well, but I firmly believe that if any organization would be willing to support this cause, it’d be the librarians.”
Censorship and libraries as a federal agency– a stress ratio
So is it or is it not censorship?
Generally speaking, YES. Denying access to any kind of information, especially one, which is openly accessible (on the internet for example), is censorship. Furthermore, denying access to WikiLeaks at times of an ongoing public debate on the matter is not just “plain old censorship” it is a violation of freedom of opinion and going against the people’s information literacy and information autonomy (other issues, on which libraries work very hard), thus harming democracy and the people’s right to take part in it.
Regarding the fact, that the library workers are being most affected from the filtering, the contradiction between the codes of ethics cited above and the act of filtering WikiLeaks is obvious.
But in this case, the answer to this question gets a bit more complicated.
The LoC, as a federal agency, had to comply with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget instructions, saying that “[… f]ederal agencies collectively, and each federal employee and contractor individually, are obligated to protect classified information pursuant to all applicable laws, as well as to protect the integrity of government information technology systems.”
The issues of national security, secrecy of governmental documents and government transparency were already discussed within the Drawer2.0 coverage of the WikiLeaks case. That’s why I will address this point differently in the case of LoC.
A library is not like any other federal agency. As an institution, whose primary goal is to create access to information, uphold censorship, collect and preserve cultural assets etc., the library is a federal agency in order to insure its independency from other factors (market factors for example) and to have the law by its side. Only in this way, libraries (above all a national library) are able to fulfill their mission.
When saying that library should make information accessible, the information addressed is all information, which is publically available (no matter in which form or medium). Secret government documents (i.e. secret government information – let us separate the information from the medium document) are of course not publically available and thus are not being collected and set for the public to read by the national library.
But once this information was made public by someone, it is information, which is publically available and libraries DO have the right to give access to this information. There should not be a consideration of form or medium, that is to say – if information is still in a “raw” state of a document posted on the web or already processed by a journalist in order to present its essence and then published in a newspaper (or on the paper’s website).
It is unimaginable (for those of us, who are used to have free speech and no censorship) that a library will deny access to a newspaper or its website. It should be the same considering WikiLeaks.
So how I see it, using the fact that a library is a federal agency in order to enforce censorship is no other than abusing the state-library relations for a goal which is completely contradictory to its original one.
** This post is a part of the Drawer2.0 alternative coverage of the WikiLeaks case: What the media doesn’t tell you and which issues are really at stake. Click here to read more.