Why the Snowden files should be made accessible through public libraries. A position paper.

The Snowden revelations have caused a global debate. Yet, what does it mean to handle the documents in a responsible manner? How can we preserve them in accessible and sustainable ways? How can the leaks become public record? The Berliner Gazette editor Sabrina Apitz presents a position paper that discusses hands on approaches and develops a collaborative approach to this challenge.


Defining the problem

The Snowden files have generated public debates around the globe and reveal a global threat to democratic freedoms. Therefore, the public has the right to engage with these documents and a certain ‘responsibility’ to engage with the Snowden revelations to help promote democracy. After all, the distribution, understanding and mobilizing of this knowledge is a pre-condition of democratic participation. But do we actually consider the leaked Snowden files as a commons?

To become Commons the Snowden Files need to satisfy two conditions:

1. being accessible to all members of a society

2. held in common – as the knowledge from Wikipedia or other commons-based platforms

ad 1: Although the published part of the leaks is made available online, the documents are not fully accessible since they are scattered across different platforms throughout the world. Moreover, at present, perhaps because of their complexity, documents themselves have not drawn a great deal of public scrutiny.

ad 2: When the files are accessible to the general public, and when communities gather and collaborate around them, the Snowden files constitute a commons. This condition implies not only increasing the accessibility of the files as such, but developing interpretations, interfaces and platforms that encourage discourse by a broad cross-section of society, not just specialists or experts.

Potential solutions

1. Snowden files to public libraries!

1.1. Public institutions like public libraries should host the Snowden files, fullfilling their political mission as civic hubs. Libraries and the librarians and information professionals who work in them provide general accessibility, a committment to the public and the skills and talents to make this possible.

1.2. In the first phase public libaries should function as civic hubs for actors including journalists, academics and (net) activists. These actors can process and manage substantial information for a wider public and create a basis for commoning the Snowden files. They are, so to speak, capable of “grounding” the “Snowden Commons”.

2. The published documents should enter public libraries, by becoming digital and analog public records!

2.1. digital
– creating Mirror-Sites of e.g. the Snowden Digital Surveillance Archive, the Snowden Document Search and the Tally Update.

2.2. analog/digital
– curating a catalogue/index of academic literature that deals with or is based on the Snowden files

2.3. analog:
– bundeling all the already published documents in book format
– bundeling all the articles about them (referencing files published on platforms of media houses) in book format
– creating Mirror-Sites of the “Portable Snowden Surveillance Archive”

3. For the transformation of the Snowden files into a commons, multi-stakeholder collaboration is required!

3.1. Partners in the library field should work with actors from other sectors of information management (journalism, academia and (net) activism), because each actor would be overburdened by this huge task. Only a merging of competencies can create the synergies we need. (Scroll down to the “Appendix” to look at a potential collaborative scenario between the stakeholders “artists/activists and librarians” as an example).

3.2. Multi-stakeholder collaboration will create the communities that transform the Snowden leaks into commons.


As an example for the group’s outcomes, two stakeholder groups shall be highlighted here: Artists/activists and librarians.

The activists, on the one hand, could adopt artistic strategies, e.g. transforming the files into artistic content, provide cultural translations of the files and suggest interpretations, thus helping to make the documents and their meaning for society more tangible. Event formats like story-telling or other interventions could enable to address the emotions of a broader audience and at the same time trigger media attention.

Librarians, on the other hand, could provide a collaborative infrastructure for artists/activists. As a memory and knowledge framework, libraries can provide their IT infrastructure for the hosting of the digitized files, as well as trained staff for the archiving and indexing of the documents. Moreover, libraries provide a secure public space for meetings, for research, and for discussion, thus offering a framework for community building and for the empowerment of community activity.

As a community hub, the local library can help to connect local experience to overarching historical developments. However, in order to push collaboration with different actor groups, libraries need technical support, access to and the ‚expertise’ of external actors, as well as resources, organizational paradigms, and more freedom and flexibility regarding their collections and programs.

Remarks on the legal dimension

When speaking of “leaked documents”, it is understood that we (and all the archival projects mentioned in this project paper) refer to “leaked documents published by media houses”.

While the status of the Snowden documents remains legally controversial, it is decisive to note that the files already published by media houses have become sources in the public domain. As such they are constitutionally protected according to the freedom of the press, in Germany “Artikel 5 Abs. 1 des Grundgesetzes für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland”, which encompasses also freedom of speech, freedom of broadcasting (Rundfunkfreiheit) and freedom of information. Therefore our project focuses on Snowden files that can be considered to belong to the public domain. Hence the practical guidelines that we explore in this project for activists, researchers, journalists and librarians do not risk the threat of legal consequences.

Quote from Artikel 5 Abs. 1 des Grundgesetzes für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland: “Jeder hat das Recht, seine Meinung in Wort, Schrift und Bild frei zu äußern und zu verbreiten und sich aus allgemein zugänglichen Quellen ungehindert zu unterrichten. Die Pressefreiheit und die Freiheit der Berichterstattung durch Rundfunk und Film werden gewährleistet. Eine Zensur findet nicht statt.”

Practise note

Andrew Clement reported in the Berliner Gazette about his experiences with the Snowden files. He is professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and the initiator of the “Snowden Digital Surveillance Archive”. Here an excerpt from his report:

“My own university library contacted me about archiving materials related to the Snowden Archive (specifically the media articles that published the documents). We’re now working to have the library host a mirror of the entire Archive.

Establishing mirroring sites is desirable in several ways. Besides improving accessibility and technical stability through redundancy, it also provides local users (say students) access to the collection without exposing their search traffic to internet interception and expresses solidarity with the ideals of open access to controversial materials.

We’ve approached other universities as potential mirror sites, but so far this has been bogged down by the fact that the documents represent ‘stolen goods’ and so possessing them would be a criminal violation (at least in Canada). While the chance of prosecution is very small, legal departments in a couple of universities are balking.

Going directly through the libraries themselves looks to be a better prospect as they both have the necessary technical capabilities and appear more oriented than university administrations to preserving academic freedoms around contentious holdings.”

More links

* Snowden Files For All? An initiative by Berliner Gazette.

* From the “Snowden Files” to the “Snowden Commons”: The Library as a Civic Hub. A position paper developed at SLOW POLITICS the Berliner Gazette conference 2014.

* Inside Snowden’s Suitcase. Seminar at the Cambridge University.

Editors note: This position paper was developed by Berliner Gazette as well as participants of the workshop “Sowden Files For All” which was held at the international conference UN|COMMONS, October 22-24 2015 in Berlin. More documents from the conference please find here. A German version of the position paper is available. We continue to work on these issues at a series of talk curated by Berliner Gazette at the transmediale 2016. The photos stem from von Leo Hidalgo. The picture that shows Andrew Clement was taken by Norman Posselt at the Berliner Gazette Office. All images are under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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