Archiving official documents as an act of radical journalism

A report on the rare minerals revealed under the melting ice in Greenland. Forms for applying for an “investor visa” in Italy. Video of His Excellency Dr. Matar Hamed Al Neyadi, UAE ambassador to Kuwait, inaugurating a corner for Al Fou‘ah Dates Company. An Egyptian ministry report on the delivery of food aid to Kenya. And for heaven’s sake do NOT Carry or Import Products Containing Cannabis into Taiwan

Democracy’s Library, a new project of the Internet Archive that launched last month, has begun collecting the world’s government publications into a single, permanent, searchable online repository, so that everyone—journalists, authors, academics, and interested citizens—will always be able to find, read, and use them. It’s a very fundamental form of journalism. 

A ramble through these documents gives the feeling of a family of democracies, of the nations sharing the internet that have published information about our lives and institutions. It also draws attention to those nations—Hong Kong, Hungary, Russia—that seek to deny access to information about the workings of their own governments. 

“I think the overlap between democracy and openness is absolutely one to one,” Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle says. 

“If we don’t have facts, we can’t have law, and we have no democracy,” Nobel Prize–winning journalist Maria Ressa said in a piece in The Atlantic recently. 

The importance of distributing true copies of government records was formally recognized by the US Congress in 1813 with a resolution establishing what later became the Federal Depository Library Program, now a network of more than eleven hundred libraries maintaining collections of government records, including catalogues of government assistance, census information, economic indicators, the US Code and Government Manual, the Social Security Handbook, bibliographies, the daily Federal Register, and Ben’s Guide to US Government for Kids (“Let’s Go on a Learning Adventure!”).

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But in recent years, enormous collections of these documents came to be gathered and sold or licensed to libraries through commercial databases. At the same time, digital repositories maintained by governments have aged and deteriorated. Standards are lacking, or absent altogether.

It’s more than an academic issue. Mark Graham, the leader of the Archive’s Wayback Machine, offered journalists a challenge. “Russia submitted a collection of 310 pages of material to the UN Security Council, arguing that the United States was behind biological-weapons labs in Ukraine, as part of their justification for why they invaded Ukraine,” he said. “Find that document for me.” (I nosed around for a while looking for the report in question, but I haven’t yet found a copy.) 

The complete, unredacted version of the March 2019 Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election is a far more famous example of an imperfectly archived government record. We have partial versions, but, according to Graham, these already lack important context and citations. “The Mueller report is only, what, three years old. If I say to you, ‘Hey, how do you get it?’ And, ‘How do you know that’s the version that was published, when it was published?’ And, ‘There are 2,300 footnotes in it. How many of those footnotes are still live?’”

Now multiply that rickety state of affairs over the millions of documents produced by the world’s governments—information we may find we need later—stored piecemeal, often in obsolete or lost repositories, and deteriorating fast.

These difficulties are particularly thorny in the case of researching local politics in the US, for example. There are more than 500,000 elected officials across the United States, according to Frances Sawyer, an expert in environmental policy at Pleiades Strategy. 

Voting records provide the basis for holding politicians accountable for their individual actions, Sawyer told me. But not all local governments maintain digital records for their constituents. So, as public life has moved online, this information has grown increasingly fractured and difficult to retrieve. “It’s really, really hard to figure out how a county commission is voting these days,” she said. “It’s a very manual process.” 

The author and public-domain advocate Carl Malamud is known for working to ensure free public access to pacer court records, though over the course of a long career he also made SEC and patent databases publicly available. 

“One of the arguments I always get is that ‘ordinary’ people won’t care about these documents,” he wrote in an email exchange. But people are smart, Malamud says.

“Indeed, in many cases the government publications are the easiest to read!” he added. “And many journalists have come around to the idea that while they are there to interpret the facts, being able to link and display the source materials is a service to their readers.”

Democracy’s Library, says Kahle, “is about taking information straight from governments and making these materials permanently available to anybody. That is new. Or new again. In some sense, it’s old.”

Note: Brewster Kahle’s foundation supplied a grant to a cooperative, Brick House, which I help lead. 

 

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Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.

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