Report on ‘After WikiLeaks is it all over for The Archives’ now available

On March 23 in Sydney, new recordkeeping and archives discussion group The Recordkeeping Roundtable, in conjunction with the NSW Branch of the Australian Society of Archivists hosted ‘After WikiLeaks, is it all over for The Archives? WikiLeaks and the future of recordkeeping in a connected world’.

The seeds for this event had been sewn a few months earlier, with the start of discussions on both the ASA’s ArchivesLive!  and the Archives and records Australia Google Group . By late February a concept for a panel and discussion session had formed, with the group keen to involve speakers from outside the archives world. The panel on the night was eventually made up of:

  • Cassie Findlay, an archivist and recordkeeping professional who is responsible for State Records NSW’s digital records strategy, ‘Future Proof’
  • Stephen Gillies, President of the System Administrators Guild of Australia, Principal Consultant for the IT security and advisory business 3rd Base Networks (3BN) and a founding member of the Internet Society of Australia
  • Linda Tucker, Manager of casework and compliance for the NSW Office of the Information Commissioner, who prior to joining the OIC worked in employment and migration law as a solicitor and barrister and as an academic on international environmental law, and
  • Barbara Reed, a principal of consulting and training firm Recordkeeping Innovation, internationally known writer and thinker and contributor to a number of national and international standards for recordkeeping.

The event was facilitated by Anne Picot, Deputy University Archivist at the University of Sydney, and a member of Standards Australia’s IT21 Records Management Committee.


After a welcome by Hamish Hawthorn, CEO of the event’s sponsor ATP Innovations, Anne Picot kicked off proceedings by outlining the ground rules for the evening and with some observations on the WikiLeaks, journalism and archives. Anne noted that while Government archives can generally remain invisible, journalists can often be despised for their analysis and publishing from source records. She cited Margaret Simons, writing in The Monthly, who said that journalism should be an act of civic engagement. Similarly, the Australian view of the mission of archives is one of accountability, linked to our human rights to determine how we are governed. Julian Assange’s view of his organisation and mission is very much linked to that view of civic engagement and accountability. But in his case he has torn asunder the kinds of protocols, time and space buffers and chains of custody and control that we as archivists have relied upon to preserve records for public access and to guarantee their authenticity. Anne said that we as a profession cannot ignore that impact, neither can we ignore the connected world in which people expect instant answers to Googled questions. Are these people our users? If not – who are our users? In conclusion Anne expressed a hope that the discussions of the evening would allow an investigation of what we as a profession could learn from WikiLeaks and from the connected world more generally.

Cassie Findlay

As the first of the speakers, Cassie Findlay described the stark contrast that she had seen at the start of the year between the media reporting on the January 1 release of 1980 Cabinet records by the National Archives of Australia and the coverage, discussion and debate stimulated by the still recent releases by WikiLeaks including CableGate and the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. Cassie pointed to the use by WikiLeaks of language that our profession typically uses – historical record, archive, authenticity, and the fact that WikiLeaks’ own publicity materials employ images symbolic of archives. Most significantly, in contrast to the folksy and nostalgic tone of the media and events associated with the 1980 Cabinet papers release, she explained how the records of the WikiLeaks releases have had – and are continuing to have – profound effects on world affairs. She posed the question: are WikiLeaks doing our job for us and doing it better?

In considering this question, Cassie talked about the nature of our role as recordkeeping professionals – in particular our responsibility to enable the creation and use of records to serve as evidence and agents of accountability and reform. We need to keep sight of our contract with the citizens of our democracy to ensure they have the best possible ‘historical record’ (including records created today) on which to base their decisions and interactions with governments and corporations. Are we living up to that contract at present with gatekeeper mindsets and blanket records closure rules? We have extremely powerful ways of placing records in their temporal, administrative and functional contexts – why should these understandings only be available for records of 30 year old events? To further explore whether WikiLeaks have stepped onto our turf Cassie then raised some questions about our fondly held digital recordkeeping principles of metadata creation and management to contextualise and authenticate records, noting that these aspects of our practice did not seem to be so important to the media or the broader community who  have been users of WikiLeaks records. Indeed WikiLeaks-released diplomatic cables have been admitted as evidence in at least one court of law. She also explored the notion that an archive is designed to be permanently available – and noted some of the technological methods used by WikiLeaks to make records as ‘permanently available’ as possible on the Web. Again, are archivists’ custodial models and concerns with trusted digital repositories hopelessly out of step with the possibilities offered to us by technology and the information revolution?

Stephen Gillies

Stephen Gillies founded a company that specialises in security advising and consultancy for telecommunications companies, internet service providers and other enterprises. He has a background in content security and data management. In his work, he said, he has observed that many organisations have issues with the creation and management of authentic, well provenanced digital information. Stephen then went on to talk about users’ expectations of information access today. He showed us a quote about the ‘library of the future’:

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated at a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works.
On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers.

(Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”, Atlantic Monthly, July 1945)

So even in that era, Stephen said, there was an awareness that information output would very quickly fill the largest repositories and that there needed to be some movement away from keeping information physically. Archives and libraries are now doing this – Stephen cited some examples including the National Library’s Trove website and a recent speech by Senator Kate Lundy on the importance of digitisation of library and archive materials. He said that he now reads his books and magazines on a Kindle and would prefer it if he could access all materials, including digital archives, in this way. The archives profession, he argued, needs to take note of the way people’s expectations and the technology are moving – we are already at the future state imagined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash, in which people physically interacted with their information in virtual reality. If our content is not visible and accessible using the latest tools it will be overlooked.

Stephen then spoke about the categorisation of information. He said that it is difficult for even large and well funded organizations to adequately categorise information for management and retrieval. Metadata exists but is not being properly structured to enable even basic control in some cases. He noted the federal Government’s security classification framework and questioned whether this posed even more complexity for archivists. He also explained that social media is now generating massive volumes of data – some of which will need to preserved, but for which there is also much complexity to be overcome. The cloud is now where we will store not only information but the applications we use to process it, messaging, databases, even link to manpower ‘on the ground’ to input data. Holding information on physical media and in local stores is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

Stephen concluded his presentation by explaining the model that the big players in online technologies are now following, and that archivists should heed:
Connect anyone
Access anything
From anywhere
On any device
At any time.

Linda Tucker

Linda Tucker started her talk with the question: Is WikiLeaks going to put her employer, the Office of the Information Commissioner, out of business? They have put the right to information on front pages worldwide. What we have seen is decisions about the release of public information taken out of the hands of those officially charged with its care – what is the wash up from this?

The Office of the Information Commissioner, Linda said, is part of a worldwide movement away from freedom of information towards the right to information. The emphasis is on the importance of open access, proactive release and a clear recognition of the importance of greater transparency in government. But the role of agencies is not, she argued, to be official versions of WikiLeaks but to be stewards of information and ensure that it is managed and released in ways that promote transparency, while acknowledging important privacy protections. Agencies need to better manage the message by pre-empting the leaks and getting information out there – on their own terms. Her message to them is: Tell the story yourselves, get on the front foot.

Linda noted that both the Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA) that she works with and the privacy principles recognise that some information has to be protected, and that this has been highlighted in some of the negative commentary on WikiLeaks. We have also seen that on a global scale the main criticisms seem to have been centred on the diplomatic communications and whether free and frank disclosures will be likely if they are going to end up on the front page of The Guardian or the New York Times. Linda said there have been extraordinary disclosures in these communications – but that many have been quite humorous, not resulting, in fact, in the end of the world. Further to this she said that Ben Saul, writing for the ABC’s The Drum, noted that really the focus of critical commentary should not be on WikiLeaks but instead on the US Government for failing to adequately protect its own information. WikiLeaks, Linda said, is a good argument for agencies to use GIPA to take a more rigorous approach to their information stewardship role, and to take care to know how their information is being managed.

Linda suggested that what has been seen by some as a ‘free for all’ is perhaps a reaction to what Leo Strauss termed the elitist notion of democracy – the idea of the ‘necessary lie’. That is, that elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things, and feed the people favours to keep them happy in their blessed ignorance. She noted that in the same way that archivists have a contract with the people in a democracy, people take up a social contract with government whereby they relinquish autonomy in exchange for certain privileges. Similarly, people cede certain rights to the fourth estate by allowing them to negotiate with government for information and feed it back to us, giving the governments the tick of approval for disclosure. WikiLeaks has challenged some of the bases for these models and our understandings of who knows best. In particular, Linda argued, WikiLeaks’ challenge to the assumption that the State knows best and that the public could not survive the unveiling of the fables that have been sustaining us is a valid one – particularly in an era of claimed open government. Information should not be withheld on the basis that it might embarrass, distress or confuse – and in fact this is explicitly stated in GIPA.

Some have argued that WikiLeaks may promote greater secrecy but in Linda’s view there will always be those who leak information where they see it being withheld to mask misconduct. The role of agencies is to act in the spirit of GIPA to proactively release evidence of actions that perhaps did not go to plan, to take the wind out of the sails of a hostile media or other detractors. Indeed, perhaps the fear of frankness that some have argued may be a result of WikiLeaks will instead result in people behaving in a more circumspect and appropriate manner in their communications, knowing that they may be put out there for all to see. Linda urged us to see the work of the Information Commissioner in these terms – as offering a framework for better managed, more open information that will flow through to a public service with greater integrity and less to fear.

Barbara Reed

Barbara Reed started her talk with the observation that WikiLeaks had jolted us as recordkeeping professionals. Records are front page news as agents of change, but we as a profession are not part of the response. Why? They (WikiLeaks) have been quietly reinventing our role and we are simply not there. Barbara proposed that many of our core professional understandings and practices were broken, and that in many cases this is a result of our processes being based around lapses of time and ‘end product’ thinking. Models and rules for access, security classification and appraisal have all fallen foul of this trend, resulting in messy and ineffective regimes.

Barbara posed the question: What is an archive? Is WikiLeaks an archive? She suggested that an archive is defined by a community – this is something that we have seen develop on the internet over the last decade. And following on from this; if an archive is the people’s, then our notions of archives that are based on their control by authoritative bodies such as nation states, and which follow strict boundaries between the personal and private, government and organisations, do not stand up any more. This is extremely challenging for us, not least for the fact that if you allow one community-defined archive, you must allow them all. And if archives are being defined in this way, what is our role now?

Barbara asked: What is the nature of the community that defines an archive? In the case of WikiLeaks, it is in part the control they exert over what happens with the records they release – seen in particular in the move from their original idea of crowd sourced interpretations to partnerships with old media organisations to achieve maximum impact for the material. She also explored the notion of archives and trust. WikiLeaks could not be said to be a trusted organisation in the way that most archives would be regarded. However if you consider this question from the point of view of the community they support – the whistleblowers – they (WikiLeaks) work very hard to earn their trust. Is this enough for other users? On the matter of authenticity Barbara reiterated Cassie’s earlier point that the kind of tests we favour have not necessarily been used by WikiLeaks to verify the authenticity of records, with the reactions of actors such as the State Department providing adequate verification of authenticity. So authenticity is contingent and not an absolute – we already knew this but it is a lesson that takes a particularly powerful form in the digital environment.

Other qualities of an archive that Barbara explored included originality (the WikiLeaks records are authentic copies, not originals, but in a digital world what does this signify?) and the drivers behind the formation of the archive. WikiLeaks presents us with a miscellany of ‘stuff’, ripped out of its originating context and brought together by a philosophy rather than an administrative or juridical rule. It’s located in many places, it’s in the cloud. All of these characteristics present fundamental challenges to the way we as recordkeeping professionals see the world.

Barbara concluded her remarks with a challenge – everyone is an archivist now, records are an incredibly powerful political lever, we need to understand this and move away from time lapsed, end product thinking and start working much more proactively on the formation of archives – from the front end.


Some of the questions and comments from the audience included:

  • Susan Kennedy asked: What are the differences between the WikiLeaks and Watergate? What has prompted the differing reactions to these?
  • Tim Robinson related a question that had come up in a discussion with a colleague: Should we be concerned about the release of information by a small group of people with a particular agenda? In response to this there was some discussion about comparing this with archival appraisal and the agendas of government archivists who carry this out.
  • There was an interesting discussion about the obligations of an archive to its community, considering the lessons we have learned from the sharing of control and management of indigenous communities’ archives.
  • Stephen Bedford raised some questions about the ethical leaking of information and the role of the records manager.
  • Kerry Gordon asked: What might the future look like for archival access regimes?
  • Chris Hurley raised some points on the question asked by Barbara about whether WikiLeaks were an archive. In particular, he pointed to understanding the contextual narrative that the have records come out of, know how to implement redaction and a desire by those controlling the records to control the narrative as all drawing parallels between our understandings and the WikiLeaks model. On this last point, a parallel can be drawn, he argued, between the narrative that WikiLeaks are imposing on the records they release and their resistance to allow the traditional media to do what they like with them, and archivists’ insistence on provenance and original order, which is also essentially about controlling the narrative of the documents.


About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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3 Responses to Report on ‘After WikiLeaks is it all over for The Archives’ now available

  1. Pingback: Archives Outside » April link roundup post

  2. Pingback: Archivists, librarians and WikiLeaks | Recordkeeping Roundtable

  3. Pingback: Archivists, librarians and Wikileaks – Part 2 | Recordkeeping Roundtable

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