the library is the arsenal

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Discovery Report #4: Jess

Peter Brantley, a regular contributor to O’Reilly’s blog, Radar, recently posted his notes from a workshop he attended in his role as the Executive Director for the Digital Library Federation, whose aim was to discuss and create a model for dealing with online footage coming out of the Iraq War and other places. This footage is obviously often violent and shocking, and many online archives and websites have been asked to remove such material. The question is complicated not only by the mission of archives to collect and make documents (especially those of historic importance) available to the public at large, but also by questions of rights, privacy, censorship, social and personal responsibility. In the end, the group decided that the archival mission of maintaining an accurate historical record and access to information should be of primary concern, though user feedback would determine whether certain videos and images should be preceded by a warning or removed altogether. The comments at the end of the post continue the conversation, wondering if the term “terrorist” isn’t a relative one in times of war, to which Brantley responded with a graphic description of one video (preceded by a warning), and a firm declaration that such actions, no matter who performs them, are terror, that war is terror, and that it is the duty of archivists to preserve documentation and access to that documentation in the hopes that they will be informative, potentially even enlightening.
In a case like this, where the mission of archives of any type is called into question by an urge to protect, self-censor, or respond to public criticism, it is heartening to see a thoughtful discussion take place among professionals. Archives and other repositories of digital information have an especial vulnerability to public scrutiny since their contents are more widely and easily accessible. I am glad to hear that the participants in this workshop came down on the side of transparency, conservation and preservation rather than following in the footsteps of a media that has yet to show the American public what is happening on the ground in Iraq, either because of outside political pressure, or a sense of self-censorship and misplaced propriety. It is important that the terrors and horrors of war are preserved, studied, and openly available to the public, especially in the case of a public that is funding a war. The question is, as it always must be in any kind of information center, who decides what is information? Who decides what is valid, and what can be accessible to all? In the end, if libraries, archives, and other repositories of information are to maintain the democratic ideal and serve the public good, the urge must be towards full disclosure of information. For the sake of future generations, if not our own, it is of vital importance that a record of this war is preserved, and with this war, more than any other, there is an opportunity to maintain nearly immediate access to the record of the war, and from many more vantage points than ever before. Archivists and other information professionals have a duty to posterity above all else. They should be sensitive to information that is potentially dangerous, even lethal, and provide disclosure about potentially upsetting, traumatizing information, but above all else, they must preserve the public record for study, and whenever possible, to check the record for authenticity.

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