The Oireachtas Librarians

An edited version of this article first appeared in Village magazine, October 2017 edition

Imagine the government built a research library, and over the years, it built up a valuable archive. No one much uses the library, though if you pay attention, you’ll notice a slow but steady trickle of journalists and policy analysts calling there, checking out obscure reports from three of four years ago, compiling some statistics, or verifying a half-remembered fact. The reports in this library are used, but they’re by no means bestsellers. But the library does contain information of worth and value to the community, part of the official biography of the nation.

Leinster House © Faduda

One day, one of the visitors called to the library as usual, only to find the doors locked and chained. The researcher makes some inquiries, and is told that because there are so few people reading the books in the library’s archives, the people in charge of such things have decided they can no longer afford to keep the library open.

“What is to become of all the books?” the researcher asks. But no one seems to know. They’ll be disposed of somehow.

The researcher is horrified. She tells all her friends what the powers-that-be are planning, and they tell all their friends in turn. Eventually, so many people are complaining that the powers-that-be reverse their decision, and re-open the doors.

But the population, no longer trusting the library archives are safe, doesn’t stop just because the library has reopened. A handful of printers, bookworms and writers get together, and start copying any books they can borrow from the library, so that just in case something happens in the future, there will be a secure backup copy.

A story like that might be expected to attract some measure of coverage in the major news organisations, yet it went almost entirely unremarked in Dublin last month. The initial report that the library had shuttered its doors was only reported by one journalist, more than two weeks after it closed down. Protests from a handful of politicians got a bit of mileage, and led to an online report in the Journal, and Drivetime did an interview about what was going on, though without much reference to the online storm of protest and spontaneous activism, and the library reopened, its restoration largely as unreported as its earlier demise.

If the government shut down a bricks-and-mortar physical library in the morning, there would rightly be widespread coverage of the story. But when the library is an online video archive of Oireachtas debates and Committee hearings, the reaction from the press is strangely muted.

Perhaps the problem is that many traditional media organisations still don’t perceive online databases and archives as real in the way they do physical buildings full of paper. Perhaps the problem is the speed with which the story moved. From Ken Foxe’s initial report, breaking the story on the morning of Sunday 22 September in the Irish Mail on Sunday, until the restoration of links to old video files on the Oireachtas, less that 36 hours passed. That can be a long time online, but for a print newspaper, it’s barely one edition. Even so, one might have expected a story somewhere to summarise what had happened.

The Irish Mail on Sunday doesn’t put its Irish stories online, so the story was slow to spread at first. Eventually though, scanned images of the story made their way onto Twitter, and users shared and commented on the report, until it got a boost from RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes, who observed that the video archive, with its permanent (or so everyone thought) record of what TDs and senators had said was an invaluable journalistic tool.

When Philip Boucher Hayes tweeted his comments about the usefulness of the archive, they served to amplify the story, bringing it to the attention of other users. A debate began about creating independent backups. The Oireachtas said that there were issues with the file formats, as many of the video files were in the Windows Media Video (WMV) format, a Microsoft standard largely abandoned. One user posted a piece of code to convert WMV files to the widely used MP4 standard, common on most online video. The code fitted comfortably into a 140-character tweet, with room to spare.

The real problems though, were bandwidth and storage capacity. A rough estimate placed the size of the archive at about 25 terabytes. That’s a lot of memory, and would take some time to download. And even after converting WMV files into a more compact format like MP4, it would still take a significant amount if disk space to store, and bandwidth to share whenever someone needed to access. Users compared notes on storage solutions, and debated how to crowdfund long-term access.

The Green Party issued a statement on Monday morning, demanding restoration of Oireachtas footage which had been “decommissioned” “It’s a very serious matter and an appalling derogation on citizens’ democratic rights,” said party spokesman Oliver Moran, a software engineer. “In future, requests for archival footage must be made in writing and the footage retrieved from an off-site archive. That’s something that will take days or weeks and already social media users are complaining that their requests aren’t being answered.”

Mirroring the ideas being debated on Twitter, Moran also invited anyone who was “interested in creating an independent searchable archive” to get in touch with him.
The Journal reported on the missing archives, later updated their report when links to the files were restored. Drivetime also ran an interview. The following day, Kildare North TD James Lawless asked Leo Varadkar if the incident was “an aberration or the start of a pattern? Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to provide timely, relevant, accurate and digitally accessible information on the proceedings of the House?”

Varadkar could have given a straight answer, and explained what happened. He chose to “assure the Deputy and any conspiracy theorists online that I had no knowledge of and no hand, act or part in this. This is entirely a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.”

As Philip Boucher Hayes noted later on Twitter, nobody had alleged political involvement in the decision, but Varadkar deflected a straightforward question.

Ironically, the exchange between Lawless and Varadkar demonstrates of the arguments for the continued existence of – and easy access to – the video record. The written text of the exchange, as archived in the Dáil Record, does not match the words spoken, as somewhere, a civil servant decided to tidy up Lawless’s syntax, and remove the hesitations, ums and ahs of the spoken word. In this case, the alterations were merely cosmetic, but there have been cases in the past where the meaning of the record has been materially altered by such changes.

“I thought his response to me was a bit disappointing,” Lawless to Village magazine. “The programme for government includes a commitment to transparency, open government, freedom of information. He’s talking about all that stuff, but then this very simple thing comes along.”

“It’ not a great response, if anybody who asks a question about the provision of information is to be labelled a conspiracy theorist. There’s a gap in information. I think its a fairly reasonable request to have transcripts and video footage online. I know the transcripts are still there, but the impact of seeing the video is much more powerful.”
Sterling Plisken (not his real name), a digital media professional, emerged as one of the leading contributors to the impromptu online attempt to replicate the Oireachtas archives, is critical of the reasoning offered for closing it down. WMV files can be converted to new formats, and online storage isn’t that expensive, he maintains. And even if online storage costs did become an issue for the state, there’s always YouTube. While not searchable in the way the current archive is, the Google-owned video website can accept WMV files (and many other formats), and is used by the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Citizens’ Assembly among other to make videos of their work available to the public.
“It’s the kind of thing you could throw a pile of money at and just buy a 45Tb external drive, but I don’t think that’s necessary,” says Plisken. Instead, he foresees a “consortium” of users sharing disk space to spread the load, and maintain the record. “It just disappeared so quickly, so easily,” he notes.

So what really happened to the video archives?

In their initial response to Ken Foxe, the Oireachtas broadcasting unit cited problems with the ageing WMV format (it’s not playable on mobile phones, for example), which had been abandoned in 2015 in favour of MP4.

While the older files had remained online, the change was “triggered as our service provider decommissioned the infrastructure on which these files were hosted.”
The unit also cited web analytics showing “minimal traffic going to video files older than the last month or so.”

Speaking to Village, a spokesman said the announcement of the changes had been made some months ago, but web users could easily have missed the notice, especially on a website as busy as the Oireachtas. The plan for the future is to have an online archive going back two years at any time, with older videos available on request. In addition to WMV files, which extend to about 2009, there are even older tapes (in some cases, literally tapes) storing video in a variety of formats extending back as far as 1993. These will be stored safely to preserve the record, and made available on request to researchers and journalists.

This arrangement will probably work well for academics and researchers, who aren’t plagued by the ever shrinking deadlines which dominate journalism. For the moment then, the video files back to 2009 remain online for journalists who cannot afford the wait of days or weeks it may take to request a clip from a deep archive. For the future, it might behove news organisations – publishers and broadcasters alike – to organise some funding for the spontaneous cooperative which sprang to life in response to Ken Foxe’s scoop.