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Library of Congress: We didn't call WikiLeaks 'extremist'

After dispute over whether WikiLeaks is an "extremist Web site," a library representative explains to CNET how that label came to be applied to a book about the Web site.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read

The Library of Congress says it was not responsible for categorizing a WikiLeaks-related book as "extremist" and that it has decided to removed that label.

A spokesman for the library told CNET today that it adopted that classification in its catalog automatically after another major library system--apparently the National Library of Australia--had applied it to a recent book about the document-leaking Web site. Librarians call this practice "copy cataloging."

"Copy-cataloging was the method used for the book in question," Library of Congress spokesman John Sayers said. "With the huge quantity of material it catalogs each year--more than 365,000 books in fiscal 2010--the Library of Congress cannot review each record in advance of adding it to the catalog." About 18 percent of the Library of Congress' listings are copy-cataloged from other libraries, he said.

Sayers said only one book, "Inside WikiLeaks," by estranged WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, had been incorrectly listed under the keywords "extremist Web sites."

The same query now returns no books about WikiLeaks. The lone result is a 2008 book by an Italian professor titled "Hate on the Net: Extremist Sites, Neo-fascism On-line, Electronic Jihad."

The controversy erupted in the last week after sharp-eyed Twitter users noticed that the National Library of Australia applied the "extremist Web sites" label to Domscheit-Berg's book, Julian Assange's as-yet unpublished autobiography, and another WikiLeaks-related book. After sufficient public pressure, the Australian library abandoned that characterization, as did the Library of Congress.

Here's more from what Sayers, the spokesman, told CNET:

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.

The irony is that the Library of Congress' congressional overseers might not be so sensitive about the language used to describe a Web site that leaked hundreds of thousands of secret government documents.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the head of the House Intelligence Committee, asked the Justice Department to charge WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, as did Senate Intelligence Committee chiefs Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.). Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) publicly wondered why an indictment and extradition "hasn't happened yet."

King went beyond calling WikiLeaks an "extremist" organization. Instead, he wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that "WikiLeaks appears to meet the legal criteria" of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, King wrote. He added: "WikiLeaks presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States."

The Pentagon's criminal investigation of WikiLeaks--especially Assange, its frontman and spokesman--began last summer after the Web site published thousands of military dispatches from Afghanistan. The military probe continued with the distribution of confidential Iraq and State Department, and a federal grand jury is meeting in Alexandria, Va.

The Library of Congress blocked access to WikiLeaks from its computers in December 2010, saying "applicable law obligates federal agencies to protect classified information," even though other federal agencies did not.