A Tufts librarian leads an international effort to save digital information threatened by Russia’s invasion
As Russian bombs threaten to destroy historic museums, libraries, and religious buildings across Ukraine, a global network of volunteers has mobilized to preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage online. Using digital tools, they have saved data from more than 2,200 cultural websites and other sources on servers outside the country, providing a critical backup plan in case of loss or damage during the war.
That information is at risk just like physical artifacts and monuments, says Anna Kijas, AG05, the head of Lilly Music Library at Tufts.
The effort started in late February, just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, when Kijas mused on Twitter about launching a project to save digitized music collections, her area of expertise. The project soon attracted more than 1,000 volunteers from around the world—librarians, archivists, researchers, and programmers, some of them fluent in Ukrainian—and is now co-organized by Kijas, Quinn Dombrowski of Stanford University, and Sebastian Majstorovic of the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage.
The group is crawling websites, digital exhibits, and open access publications of Ukrainian cultural institutions with automated computer programs that search sites and collect data. The group also manually archives pages and files. Volunteers have added more than 10 terabytes of data to servers outside the country and saved almost 15,000 files to the Internet Archive, where it has a collection. (One terabyte is equal to 1,000 gigabytes, or about the amount of data that could be stored on 16 iPhones.)
The group, which calls itself Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO), hopes that the backup files will never be needed, but the ongoing bombardment of Ukrainian cities raises the chances that servers may be destroyed or disconnected and information lost, Kijas says. That point was underscored soon after the volunteers had preserved the contents of the website of the State Archives of Kharkiv, including scans of rare books. Hours later, the site went down, she says, and it has been unstable since.
Preserving Ukraine’s cultural heritage is particularly important to Kijas because Russian President Vladimir Putin has challenged Ukrainians’ identity, claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and that Ukraine is not a real state.
Kijas emphasizes that SUCHO is not trying to absorb collections into other institutions. Rather, it aims “to help keep this data safe and then if needed, we give it back and they can just have it and put it back online.”
Other similar groups are focused on preserving other types of digital information, such as government and news sites.
Looking ahead, Kijas says rapid-response preservation efforts like SUCHO would be less necessary in times of natural disaster or war if cultural institutions had more support before a crisis hits. She and others are considering how institutions with more resources might partner with those without the funding or infrastructure to back up their online collections.
“Libraries, specifically university libraries, are meant to not only create knowledge and preserve the knowledge at their own institutions, but have a global outlook,” she says. “Our institutions have a responsibility to other libraries, not to take their collections, but to help preserve them.”
Heather Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.