Friends and supporters of the Internet Archive gathered October 19 at the organization’s headquarters in San Francisco to celebrate the launch of Democracy’s Library.
Plans to collect government documents from around the world and make them easily accessible online were met with enthusiasm and endorsements. Speakers at the event expressed an urgency to preserve the public record, make valuable research discoverable, and keep the citizenry informed—all potential benefits of Democracy’s Library.
“If we really succeed — and we have to succeed — then Democracy’s Library might become an inspiration for openness in areas that are becoming more and more closed,” said Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.
The 10-year project aims to make freely available the massive volume of government publications (from the U.S. and other democracies), including books, guides, reports, surveys, laws and academic research results, which are all funded with taxpayer money, but often difficult to find.
To kick off the project, Kahle announced the Internet Archive’s initial contributions to Democracy’s Library:
- United States .gov websites collected since 2008;
- Crawls of the U.S. state government websites;
- Digitized microfilm and microfiche from the U.S. Government Publishing Office, NASA and other government entities;
- Crawls of government domains from 200 other countries;
- 50 million government PDF documents made into text searchable information.
It will be a collaborative effort, said Kahle, calling upon others to join in the ambitious undertaking to contribute to the online collection.
The need for Democracy’s Library
“We need Democracy’s Library. The Internet Archive’s work leading this project represents a critical step in the evolution of democracy,” said Jamie Joyce, executive director of The Society Library and emcee of the program. “Archives and libraries, as they’ve always done in the past, will continue to change in their scope, scale, and capabilities to be of critical use to society, especially democratic societies. Tonight is about witnessing another transformation.”
Although there is more data available than ever before, Joyce said, society’s knowledge management system is badly broken. Misinformation is rampant, while high quality government data is buried and scattered across different federal, state and local agencies.
Having public material consolidated, digitized and machine readable will allow journalists, activists, and others to be better informed. It will also make democracy more transparent and accountable, as well as protect the historical documents. “We will not be able to compute in the future what we do not save today,” Joyce said.
At a time when polarized politics can put information at risk, the event highlighted the need to safeguard public data.
Gretchen Gehrke, co-founder of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, has been working in partnership with the Internet Archive to track changes in federal environmental websites.
“People should be able to know about environmental issues and have a say in environmental decisions,” she said. “For the last 20 years, the majority of this information has been delivered through the web, but the right to access that information through the web is not protected.”
Gehrke described how public resources and tools related to the federal Clean Power Plan, a hallmark environmental regulation of the Obama administration, were taken down from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website under President Trump’s tenure.
“There are no policies protecting federal website information from suppression or outright censorship,” Gehrke said. “This case serves as an example of why we need Democracy’s Library to preserve and provide continued access to these critical government documents.”
When statistics are being cited in policy debates, citizens need to be able to have access to sources of claims. For example, Sharon Hammond, chief operating officer of The Society Library, said documents related to the environmental impact of California’s Diablo Canyon power plant should be easily available. There are nearly 5 different government bodies that have some role in monitoring the plant’s ecological impact, but the agencies house the reports on their own websites.
“Finding governmental records about public policy matters should not be a barrier to becoming an informed participant in these collective decisions,” Hammond said. “When we connect evidence directly to the claims and make that information publicly accessible as a resource, we can improve the public discourse.”
Hammond said a searchable, machine readable repository of government documents, with active links and a register of relevant government agencies, will dramatically increase meaningful access to the public’s information.
An international vision
The effort is an international one, and Canada has stepped forward as an early partner.
Canada has contributed crawls by the Library and Archives Canada of all the country’s government websites, as well as digitized microfilm and books from the Canadian Research Knowledge Network, Canadiana, and the University of Toronto.
Leslie Weir, librarian and archivist of Canada, spoke in support of the initiative.
“We know by making our collection and work of government openly accessible, we will create a more engaged community, a community that participates in elections, school board meetings, in public consultations, and yes, even and especially in protests,” Weir said. “Access is the key to understanding. And understanding is the underpinning of democracy.”
The festivities concluded with a tribute to Carl Malamud, recipient of the 2022 Internet Archive Hero Award. Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, presented the award. “Carl has always seen what the internet could be. He has dedicated his life to building that internet,” she said. “He is a true hero.”
Malamud said government information is more than just a good idea. “It is about the law. It is about our rulebook. It is the manual on how we, as citizens, choose to run our society. We own this manual,” he said. “We cannot honor our obligations to future generations if we cannot freely read and speak and even change that rulebook.”
Malamud urged the audience to get involved to realize the vision of Democracy’s Library and guarantee universal access to human knowledge.
“This is our moment. We must build a distributed and interoperable internet for our global village. We must make the increase in diffusion of knowledge our mutual and everlasting mission,” Malamud said. “We must seize the means of computation and share their fruits with all the people. Let us all swim together in the ocean of knowledge.”
For more on Malamud’s career and contributions, read his profile here.