By Genevieve Croteau (Chief Operating Officer, Coherent Digital, LLC)
Against the Grain V34#6
On February 24, 2022, Russian missiles struck Ukraine. Screens around the world lit up with news of a new war.
Thousands of miles away at Tufts University in Boston, music librarian Anna Kijas couldn’t look away. Like many, she was searching for a way to help. “I knew there were precious cultural materials in Ukrainian institutions that were in immediate danger. Handwritten scores and one-of-a-kind manuscripts that could be lost forever.”
There was nothing she could do from Boston to protect physical artifacts from being bombed, but she had been involved in data rescue efforts in the past. She understood that sometimes there’s only one digital copy of a cultural artifact and that the digital copy is also at risk. That was a problem she could help solve.
Two days after the invasion, Anna tweeted that she would be organizing a data rescue workshop focused on music collections at cultural heritage institutions in Ukraine. Her tweet caught the attention of Quinn Dombroski of Stanford University and Sebastian Majstorovic at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage.
“Anna’s tweet broke through my paralysis with the war,” Quinn recalls with feeling. “As a historian, I thought, OK, what else should be saved?” Sebastian adds.
The three have impressive professional backgrounds. Anna works as Head of Lilly Music Library at Tufts University and is a musician herself. Quinn is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford, where she “supports scholars doing computational analysis of literature in Slavic and other languages.” Sebastian is a freelance IT consultant in Vienna with a degree in film, a PhD in history, and a professional background in software development.
They met online and quickly expanded Anna’s data rescue project to include all digitized Ukrainian cultural heritage objects that they could find on various websites, including those of archives, museums, galleries, schools, local libraries, and even personal collections.
They also knew that time was short, as the war endangered all aspects of life in Ukraine. Within days, they had co-founded Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, or SUCHO. In record time, the team had spun up a website and organized the tools they would need to empower a growing army of volunteers — Slack, Google Sheets, the Internet Archive, an open-source capture tool called Web Recorder.
Word spread, and their project went viral. By the end of the first week, over a thousand volunteers joined the effort, including librarians, humanities scholars, technologists, and students.
Starting from a modest wish to help, Anna, Quinn, and Sebastian had stepped into a virtual war zone and launched the world’s first large-scale wartime web archiving project.
Outside of the scholarly community, most people think that digital content lasts forever. They don’t understand how and why digital artifacts disappear. The co-founders quickly realized that part of their job was to explain the problem to journalists and the general public. “We need to make people more aware of how fragile the Internet actually is,” explains Sebastian. “Sometimes there’s only one copy. There’s no digital twin.” He further explains that the threats come in two flavors: physical and virtual.
So how is a digital artifact threatened by a fire, flood, bombing, or looting? Digital objects exist on servers — physical machines that are often housed locally on site. If a server is destroyed and there’s no backup, the digital copy is lost.
One night in March, Sebastian experienced this first-hand. He was scanning SUCHO’s enormous, shared Google Sheet for the next website to archive and chose the State Archive of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Its website contains valuable primary-source history dating from the 1800s, including documents about Holodomor and Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.
Within hours of preserving 100GB of data, Sebastian learned that the building had been shelled and the website was offline.
Virtual threats include cyber attacks, traffic rerouting, Internet outages, or more mundane circumstances like loss of funding or unpaid bills. “Maybe the person that was supposed to renew the subscription had to flee. In a war, there are scenarios beyond our ability to imagine.”
Sebastian believes that the cloud has introduced magical thinking about the Internet’s permanence. He works to correct these ideas by explaining, “The Internet is really made up of people: webmasters, system administrators, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and registrars — there are many custodians along this chain that actively maintain the infrastructure. If one link in the chain is damaged, valuable data can be permanently lost.”
For librarians and digital preservationists, the stakes are only growing. Over the last twenty years, millions of cultural artifacts and hundreds of thousands of collections have been digitized. Born digital content — material that originates in digital form — is also valuable. Properly backing up data takes resources, and often there’s simply not enough time and money.
“These are the records of our past and the records of our time. We need to preserve them for future generations,” Sebastian urges.
In a war zone, the clock is ticking.
With over 1,000 volunteers archiving websites around the clock, Phase One of the SUCHO project was well underway. It was time for the co-founders to start refining their goals and planning for the future.
The team met with 300 Ukrainian cultural heritage professionals in a Zoom meeting to gather feedback and align priorities. Approaching SUCHO with a conscientiousness characteristic of the profession, their intention has always been to work alongside the Ukrainian cultural heritage community and to offer restitution when that community is ready.
“We don’t know when the war will end, but when the Ukrainian cultural heritage workers are in a position to rebuild, we’ll have what they need to be able to do that.”
In the meeting, they received important guidance and the following priorities:
1. Raise awareness of Ukrainian cultural heritage.
2. Get digitization equipment to sites in the Ukraine.
3. Train people in digitization, metadata, and curation best practices.
4. Provide platforms for digital preservation.
Phase 2 will focus on getting digitization equipment to cultural heritage workers on the ground. The team has established an equipment fund and collected requests from twenty-nine Ukrainian institutions. Amazon Web Services is a major donor of both equipment and cash. Already, SUCHO has raised 200,000 euros and is searching for a Ukrainian institution to help administer the funds and a Ukrainian logistics partner on the ground.
“There are many delicate decisions. We can’t do this from afar. People on the ground always know better,” emphasizes Sebastian.
The cultural value of the newly digitized materials will be stunning. One regional library in Cherkasy plans to digitize 1,000 rare books, some of them unique regional histories. They have also established a contest for children to create artwork depicting their experiences of the war.
SUCHO’s spectacular rise and accomplishments deserve to be mined for their lessons.
“I would really like to translate this into other civil society efforts,” says Sebastian. “To synthesize the lessons of SUCHO for other people to organize in a similar fashion.”
A journalist recently told Sebastaian that SUCHO reminded him of the internet of the 90s. Instead of owning or controlling every aspect of the project they had launched, the co-founders took a grassroots approach, continually democratizing processes and mobilizing and empowering others. They relied on self-training, self-organized workflows, and a motto: “If something is important to you, go for it.”
With this ethos, SUCHO evolved at an otherwise impossible pace and delivered outcomes that Anna, Quinn, and Sebastian could never have predicted. One example is the creation of a meme wall preserving Ukrainian war memes, which now drives the majority of traffic to SUCHO’s site.
Their grassroots, community approach also allowed the threesome to continually reconfigure their own roles and to focus on long-term sustainability and partnerships. They’ve been invited to meetings with UNESCO, IFLA, and the Ukrainian Library Association. Last month, Sebastian was invited to speak at Europeana’s annual conference and to present a call to action: let us work together to help Ukraine establish a National Digital Library.
As the team at SUCHO acknowledges, it is not only Ukrainian cultural heritage that is urgently at risk. Around the world, “wild content” is under attack in wars, culture wars, climate change, and more. There is room for many organizations, with many different models, to make a difference.
Sebastian explains. “It’s clear that this war is an attempt at memorycide and cultural genocide. We need to protect the very things that are the target of this war.” Quinn agrees, “This is a war about who gets to have a country, who gets to have a language, who gets to have a culture.”
What started as a humble tweet has become an act of defiance against a war of aggression. To date, SUCHO’s 1,500 volunteers have archived more than 5,000 websites, totaling 50 terabytes.
“When librarians get together, amazing things can happen,” smiles Sebastian.
The SUCHO story is ongoing. For a companion interview with the founders or to get involved visit https://www.sucho.org/.