(photo: mvlslibrary)

The Library of Congress (LOC) and the National Library of Australia (NLA) have, in the past week, reviewed their categorization for WikiLeaks books that were on file. A bottom-up movement of WikiLeaks supporters and writers on Twitter going back and forth on how WikiLeaks books were being categorized led the LOC and NLA to mount this review. And, reviews by the LOC and NLA led to a change in categorization, meaning no longer will WikiLeaks books be categorized under the subject header “Extremist Websites.”

A savvy and sharp group came together to advance a campaign to get the categorization changed. About a week ago, users began to search the LOC and NLA databases for titles of WikiLeaks they knew had been published. They discovered Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and The Most Dangerous Man in the World: The Explosive Story of Julian Assange and the Lies, Cover-ups and Conspiracies He Exposed by Andrew Fowler, were both categorized under the header. However, for some reason, Micah Sifry’s WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency did not get this label and neither did Staatsfeind WikiLeaks by Marcel Rosenbach & Holger Stark, Open Secrets by Alexander Star & Bill Keller or Underground by Suelette Dreyfus and Julian Assange.

The users found Domscheit-Berg’s book was being categorized under the same header as a US Congress hearing on countering jihadist websites and applying this subject header to WikiLeaks books meant books about “hate on the net” were in the same category as books on WikiLeaks. Users also found the Library and Archives in Canada (LAC) categorized Domscheit-Berg’s book under the header “Extremist Websites.”

On July 17, the NLA revised the categorization.

And, two days later, the LOC revised the listing as well: [cont’d.]

A search of the LOC database for WikiLeaks books returns a search that shows the LOC has simply added a “WikiLeaks” subject header.

One user found the categorization was not just appearing in these two library databases but that for Fowler’s book the “Extremist Websites” label had been printed inside the cover.

While users contacting the LOC and the NLA could get the designation removed from the databases and have the WikiLeaks books re-categorized, it would not be so easy to get this header removed from hard copies of these books. Also, it does not seem like authors of the books were aware their books were given this categorization. WikiLeaks supporters contacted Fowler and he said it was “news to him” that his book was given this header.

Days later, he says he asked the publisher, Melbourne University Press, to explain how one of the book categories was “Extremist Websites.” Still waiting for a reply, he says he “understands all books contain these kind of categorizations as a guide for readers to find them either on the net or in libraries,” but the “book is about journalism, which is where it should have been placed.”

Another surprise for supporters was that Julian Assange’s yet-to-be-published book, WikiLeaks Versus the World: My Story, was already given the label. As one WikiLeaks supporter points out, how could the National Library of Australia give a classification to a book that hadn’t even been published?

The LOC commented on the categorization saying only Inside WikiLeaks was given this header and the LOC did not label WikiLeaks an “extremist website.” They stated that they had used the designation the NLA was using.

Library of Congress spokesperson John Sayers spoke with CNET and explained the library uses a method called “copy-cataloging” because the library catalogs a “huge quantity of material” each year. Not all categorizations of books are reviewed before being added to the library. Sayers added in a statement:

To ensure that the Library of Congress Online Catalog is objective and nonjudgmental, all records in it are completed by staff at the Library of Congress or other libraries, not by publishers.

Like all libraries, the Library of Congress benefits from sharing catalog records that are prepared in other libraries throughout the world… Both the Library of Congress and other libraries assign subject access points (“subject headings”) from the Library of Congress Subject Headings, a database of more than 400,000 standardized headings that are based on “literary warrant,” or terms actually occurring in materials received for library collections.

We have mechanisms in place for post-load review, including daily reports from other libraries and library consortia, and we devote several professional staff to correcting catalog records.

In this case, a conversation thread on Twitter alerted the Library that the record for “Inside Wikileaks” included an access point that the Library of Congress would not have used. Since the Twitter conversation brought the question to the attention of the Library’s cataloging quality assurance staff, they corrected the catalog record immediately.

Cassie Findlay, a digital archivist in Sydney who contributed to the power of the crowd which got the designation removed, reacts to the episode:

[The episode] reminded us how important it is to be aware of the impact of language, especially when it comes from state institutions (something about which we had such a chilling vision from Orwell’s 1984), and it has also highlighted the inherently subjective and politically biased nature of methods of classification and categorisation used by libraries and archives. This is not a new problem, with librarian-activists like Sandy Berman in the US having challenged Library of Congress labels for years. In Australia, librarians raised concerns about the labeling of subject headings relating to Aboriginal people and went on to develop the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Thesaurus to provide more appropriate terms and meanings for these communities. These and other actions by many librarian & archivist activists show the importance of vigilance about the use of inappropriate labels in our memory institutions – libraries, archives and museums.

She suggests that it would not have been unreasonable to think that future discussion of WikiLeaks would have been part of “studies of terrorism” or books on WikiLeaks would have been outright banned from schoolrooms.

Alexa O’Brien, a writer at WikiLeaks Central who was part of getting the header changed, finds the Library of Congress ultimately had to change the designation in order to remain relevant in the digital age. She says “ontology and taxonomy are as much about the US government response to WikiLeaks as they are about library science, human knowledge, value creation and liberty.” She notes Assange has even discussed “semantic URLs.”

Frrom Assange’s conversation with Hans Ulrich-Obst, this is what O’Brien references:

JA: …There is a way of creating names in such a way that they emerge from the inherent intellectual content of something, with no extrinsic component. Now, to make this a bit clearer, look at URLs as a name for something. There is the text for the King James Bible in Project Gutenberg, as a URL. It is the short, convenient name for this—we pass it around, and it expands to the text of the King James Bible. The problem with URLs is that they are authority names. A URL goes to some company or organization, and the name is completely controlled by the company or organization, which means that Project Gutenberg could conceivably copy the Talmud over the King James Bible but the “URL name” would remain the same. It is simply up to the whim of whoever controls that domain name.

HUO: It’s private.

JA: Exactly. We all now suffer from the privatization of words, a privatization of those fundamental abstractions human beings use to communicate. The way we refer to our common intellectual record is becoming privatized, with different parts of it being soaked up into domain names controlled by private companies, institutions or states.

One might not consider the librarian or archivist to be political, but they in fact “sit squarely in the political realm.” Findlay argues that archives provide the foundation for history being written by “the winners.” The formation of colonial archives, she adds, can lead to the complete omitting or misrepresentation of struggles by indigenous people or even the whitewashing of official communications by governments. She concludes, “The language used to describe and contextualise archives can be as much as part of the problem as the archives themselves.”

The Library of Congress may not seem like an area where the US’s war on WikiLeaks has been playing out, but the LOC has blocked access to WikiLeaks on its computer system, including computers used by patrons in reading rooms. They claim to be following “applicable law” that requires them to “protect classified information.” They go along with the absurd notion prevalent in the US government that “unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.” They have developed this policy largely because of recommendations from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

This is largely disturbing. The record of history cannot be accurate if the documents, which are leading to award-winning reporting by newspapers like The Guardian, isn’t available to the public. Allegiance to the absurdity that documents are classified until properly classified, even when the press covers the documents in widely reported stories, raises the question: What if the documents are never properly de-classified? What if, in this clear case of over-classification, the government never gives up its control of the information?

On a more positive note, the American Library Association (ALA) has had some of its members campaign for the passage of resolutions in support of WikiLeaks and accused whistleblower to WikiLeaks, Pfc. Bradley Manning. Tom Twiss, a government information librarian at the University of Pittsburgh and ALA member, says WikiLeaks resonates with librarians in ALA because it has a history of taking “strong positions in the past in support of free speech, [freedom of the press] and the openness and accountability of government as crucial for a democratic society.”

In conclusion, this successful campaign shows the power that a few people can wield if they organize and take action. A group pf people pooled their talents together to “crowd-source, direct and amplify” this investigation through the use of social media, primarily Twitter. They gave the investigation a tag—#wlcat—so the whole world could follow along and even join in the effort. It was an “information freedom” action, an act of challenging bias and distortion in catalog classifications.

Those involved in the campaign are not entirely done, although they have claimed success. There are many libraries that could be contacted to make sure they know the designation that was being used has been changed. They must make sure that publishers aren’t printing the label in new books on WikiLeaks. But, that shouldn’t be difficult for those who got this far. Getting the categorization changed was pretty easy once the Library of Congress and National Library of Australia took notice. Convincing other libraries or publishers to liberate the books from this classification should not be too difficult.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."