The Little Hash Tag That Could

The ongoing battles fought by Wikileaks against attempts to silence it and take it offline have attracted support from disparate corners – journalists unsullied by their editor’s commanders and the economic vagaries of their profession; freedom of information activists; code kids (yes, that includes hackers); mums, dads, teenagers and grandparents; politicians of a libertarian bent, and that overly-suntanned Pilger guy even lefties find cool to hate.

Yet there is another contingent, not quite so noisy but equally resolute in its support of Wikileaks, that has proven to add a worthy contribution to Wikileaks as cause and intellectual movement – some of which are librarians, archivists, knowledge and information management professionals, those whose vocation it is to collate, collect, preserve and classify the minutiae and macro details of our historical and intellectual record while everyone else is busy drinking and being angry on the internet *cough*. It is fitting that such professionals would have a vested interest in Wikileaks’ success and survival. Julian Assange himself appears to consider himself part of the same ilk (at least conceptually), telling the Australian in August 2010 that he had registered Wikileaks as a library in Australia.

It is a cross-section of some of the aforementioned people (minus the bronzed Pilger and probably the grandmas) who pooled their mental resources and time in July 2011 to practice a genuinely collaborative effort, as a hybrid of activism and crowd-sourced investigative journalism.

A ‘cataloging-in-publication’ (CiP) record, usually found on the copyright page of every printed book, displays the bibliographic information that libraries use to classify publications. Most people seldom pay attention to this detail. One gimlet-eyed Twitter user did, after looking at Andrew Fowler’s biography on Julian Assange, The Most Dangerous Man in the World – pointing out that the National Library of Australia had used the phrase ‘extremist web site’ in its CiP classification of the book.

Say what?

The phrase ‘extremist website’ is one that has been highly politicized in the last decade, evoking connotations with terrorism, jihadist movements and violent idiocy in general. Placing Wikileaks in the same category would essentially demonize not only Wikileaks itself, but the hundreds of media organisations that have collaborated with it to disseminate and contextualise the material it publishes online.  As it was discovered that CiP records are used by national libraries to classify all publications, and form part of the historical record, it didn’t take long for this revelation to sound an alarm amongst a contingent of Twitter users – namely @nyxpersephone, @Asher_Wolf, @carwinb, @CassPF, @dexter_doggie, @issylvia, @jaraparilla @m_cetera, @NOH8ER and myself. A Twitter discussion was born – under the banner of #wlcat.

Entering the search term “Extremist web sites” into the National Library of Australia’s catalogue initially returned entries for Fowler’s book,  the bitter memoirs of an ex-Wikileaker Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside Wikileaks (which would have been more appropriately classified under ‘butthurt’ and ‘factual inconsistencies’), as well as the autobiography of Julian Assange himself – despite not having been published yet!

The the only Wikileaks-related publication branded with the ‘extremist website’ tag in the U.S Library of Congress’s cataloging system was Domscheit-Berg’s book. The same was the case for the Library and Archives Canada. Other Wikileaks themed books such as those penned by Bill Keller (editor of the New York Times), Micah Sifry, and Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark (of Der Spiegel) did not carry the same ‘extremist’ tag. Interestingly, the book Julian Assange penned with Suelette Dreyfus, Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, did not feature the ‘extremist’ tag either.

The outrage and consternation began to cascade down Twitter timelines as everybody donned armour in anticipation of a long and hard battle with library administrators. I don’t know about you, but the librarians I had to deal with high school breathed fire if you violated the Dewey decimal system by one point. This time, I was ready for them.

It was one thing for the White House to declare war on Wikileaks, but a stealthy tactic of what could be perceived as suppression by classification, through supposedly neutral public institutions, was positively outrageous. How dare those mild-mannered librarians act as tools of government oppression!

CassPF raised the mention of Sanford Berman, a librarian activist in the U.S known for challenging unprincipled cataloging of publications. Maybe Mr. Berman would have something to say on the matter? Wearied by the knowledge of ongoing censorship and already somewhat adversarial, the tweeters of #wlcat (understandably yet comically) proceeded to panic after unsuccessfully trying to access Berman’s glitchy, Web 1.0 website. Merely knowing that some kind of internet filter exists in Australia (however ineffectual) has a way of making people antsy if not weary (even if it only turned out to be “a mix between transparent proxies, bad routing and poor server management”, according to piecritic). Yes, we felt slightly sheepish afterwards. Well I did, at least.

What no-one was expecting was that the NLA and LOC would react so quickly to remove the ‘extremist ‘classification from these CiP records.

Change you can believe in!

Some problems remain however. Such as: the CiP record is still shown on every single printed copy of Andrew Fowler’s book to date (Fowler had been unaware of the ‘extremist’ categorisation in the first place; he later thanked the #wlcat group for initiating the change). CiP records are obtained by publishers from libraries. Fowler’s publisher, Melbourne University Press, has been contacted about this issue but there has been no official response from them at the time of writing.

The initial cause for consternation, one that still remains, is the question of  who ordained this classification decision. The CiP classification initially hinted at a silent powerful bureaucracy having the final word on how Wikileaks would be perceived through the historical record. As Nadim Kobeissi opined, “Having lost in the court of public opinion, Australia slithered to the catacombs of government – the classifications, the ratings…” Although the links are speculative at this point, is the management influence of the Online Library Computer Centre (OCLC), a global library catalogue provider on the U.S Library of Congress a factor?  As Asher Wolf pointed out, all current and prior OCLC presidents have either a U.S military, intelligence or Rand Corporation background.

The answer may not present itself so readily. As the National Library of Australia states it uses the U.S Library of Congress’ guidelines, and the LOC has claimed it merely used the NLA’s choice of classification, the buck is well and truly rolling back and forth.

This story is very much still in progress.

Nyxpersephone has written an article about this story here. Also check out CassPF’s philosophical take on the matter here.