If you’ve followed this blog you will know that our first Recordkeeping Roundtable event, in March 2011, was on the subject of WikiLeaks (‘After WikiLeaks, is it all over for the Archives?’). At that session we explored, amongst other things, what WikiLeaks’ cause and method says about the role and nature of archives – and what we as archivists can learn from them, in particular about shifting notions of ‘gatekeeper’ access to records, building trust with user communities and dissemination and redundancy of information on the Web.
So it was it was very interesting recently to read about a set of resolutions that were put to the general membership meeting of the the American Library Association at their national conference in New Orleans in late June. They included resolutions both in support of WikiLeaks and their activities and also in support of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning. You can read these resolutions in full here: http://connect.ala.org/node/147977
This story received a reasonable amount of media coverage, mainly, I would guess, as a result of the idea of mild mannered American librarians standing up for such a polarizing cause (particular in the US where official responses to WikiLeaks have been particularly vicious). But in fact over the last 12 months I have seen many librarians and archivists come out in support of WikiLeaks and their mission – in the US, Australia and elsewhere, myself included. I was interested – also as part of a longer article that I am writing – to explore this phenomenon further. Of course I had my own understanding of what in WikiLeaks resonates for me and some of my colleagues, but what were the motivations for the ALA members putting up these resolutions? And how were they feeling now, after the meeting, given that the resolutions had failed?
So I emailed Tom Twiss, ALA member and a Government Information Librarian at the University of Pittsburgh, and one of the co-proposers of the resolutions. In a series of exchanges, I asked Tom about the passage of the resolutions. He said: “All three resolutions – one on WikiLeaks and federal agencies, one in support of WikiLeaks, and one in support of Bradley Manning – were endorsed by the Social Responsibilities Round Table, but they failed at the membership meeting.” However, Tom felt that more ALA members would “support WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning as they begin to learn more of the facts and as they come to realize the significance of the issues involved.”
I asked Tom about what had prompted he and his colleagues to propose the resolutions – specifically, what was it about WikiLeaks that resonated for librarians. Tom said: “Within ALA we have taken strong positions in the past in support of free speech, free press, and the openness and accountability of government as crucial for a democratic society (see, for example the ALA’s 2004 Resolution on Securing Government Accountability through Whistleblower Protection, and our 2004 Statement on the Core Values of Librarianship). One of my concerns is that the struggle for these principles may be set back here and abroad for years or even decades if Manning is convicted and/or if the U.S. successfully prosecutes WikiLeaks.”
Tom indicated to me that he and his colleagues are keen to continue with their public support for WikiLeaks and Manning, and to offer more professional development events for librarians on the theme of free speech and free press, such as the session at the New Orleans ALA national conference with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
Librarians and archivists are part of the family of information science professionals – like any family members, we don’t always get along. And indeed our missions have possibly diverged quite significantly in recent decades as archivists increasingly shift their attention away from information curation and custodianship to steering the formation of robust recordkeeping regimes to meet business, legal and societal requirements – particularly in the digital environment. However, as managers of the published word and of primary evidence we both respect and understand the power of having the right information at the right time- and trusting that you will have continued access to that information – as a bedrock on which to build real and sustainable social change.
Let’s hope more professional bodies – including the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) and Records and Information Management Professionals Australasia (RIMPA) – follow the ALA’s lead and take steps to engage with their memberships to form public positions of support for WikiLeaks’ mission.
With many thanks to Tom Twiss for permitting me to report on our conversation.