By Derek Law, University of Strathclyde
This title is a slight paraphrase of lyrics from the Foo Fighters great song “My Hero” recorded in the mid-1990s. The lyricist Dave Grohl wrote it in admiration of the hard work and perseverance of ordinary people. The song is all about paying your respects to the people you pass on the street every day but never notice. Their work won’t be on television, and you won’t hear them interviewed or reported on a local radio station. On the surface they are just ordinary people, but their working lives are unbelievably extraordinary. The video for the song develops this idea by showing someone saving possessions from a burning house. You can’t see a face, but that’s the whole point. Although you will never discover their identity, their heroic actions should command praise and respect. As the bleak war in Ukraine enters its second year the courage and resilience of Ukrainian librarians and archivists has gone largely unremarked, but it is very real and they are perfect examples of ordinary heroes.
Part of this derives from trying to define what it means to be Ukrainian rather than just protecting the boundaries of a country. Like most countries, the boundaries of Ukraine have changed and moved over the centuries. From the 9th century onward a succession of powers from Sweden and the Mongols to Poland, Russia, Lithuania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of course the USSR have ruled all or part of the present day Ukraine. But what has in large part given the Ukrainians their sense of identity is their language, literature and culture, despite many attempts to destroy or ban both.
And so when Russia invaded Ukraine, a key part of its strategy was to destroy historic libraries and archives and other cultural sites in order to eradicate the Ukrainians’ sense of identity. But Putin hadn’t counted on the unbreakable spirit of the country’s population, not least its librarians. This element of the war has gone almost unremarked in the news stories of battles, bombings and refugees. The number of sites destroyed by Russia is given variously by different sources. UNESCO has identified damage to 241 cultural heritage sites in Ukraine since February 2022. This includes 106 religioussites, 18 museums, 86 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments, and 12 libraries. according to the Head of the Ukranian State Archival Service, Anatoliy Khromov. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has reported that 453 libraries and 63 museums and galleries have been damaged or destroyed. In a paper given at the IFLA Conference last year it was stated that more than 120 Ukrainian libraries have been partly or completely destroyedand around 4,000 libraries now find themselves in occupied territory.
But despite it all, Ukrainian libraries are staying open and they continue to engage in the life of their communities, providing support and enabling society to survive the war with Russian. Besides their traditional role, libraries are now also serving as bomb shelters, volunteer hubs and community centres, providing services around-the-clock. In Kharkiv, a city that has sustained significant bombardment in recentmonths, the city’s libraries are even working with the Department of Culture to distribute books from underground metro stations. Libraries in Ukraine have responded to the warby developing this role as community hubs. The Ukrainian Library Association (ULA) has reported libraries across Ukraine acting as collection points for food, medicine, and clothing. Further, the ULA records that volunteers and staff in libraries have engaged in supportive activities including knitting socks and scarves, holding first aid training sessions, and providing psychological support from trained professionals to their community members. They have even converted book stores to act as bomb shelters.
And others have helped. Two months into the war the Washington Post published the story of an international group of more than 1,500 librarians, historians, teachers and young people who have banded together to save Ukraine’s Internet archives, using IT to back up everything from census data to children’s poems and Ukrainian basket weaving techniques. Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) is an initiative which is organising an online collaboration to digitize and preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage. Since the start of the invasion, SUCHO has web-archived more than 5,000 websites and 50 terabytes of data from Ukrainian cultural institutions, to prevent these websites from going offline. The websites range from national archives to local museums, from 3D tours of churches to children’s art centers.While governments provide artillery, ammunition and tanks, the volunteers are sending scanners and cameras to help with digitisation.
The Bodleian Library at Oxford University has shown another approach. The Bodleian Libraries Web Archive (BLWA) isdocumenting what is happening in Ukraine and the surrounding region. Much of the information about Ukraine being added to the web may prove to be ephemeral mostespecially information from individuals about their experiences, and those of the people around them. Action is needed to ensure we preserve some of these contemporary insights for future reflection and research. The Bodleian is trying to archive a range of different content, including social media, and to start forming a resource which can join with other collections being developed elsewhere to:
- capture the experiences of people affected by the invasion, both within and outside of Ukraine
- reflect the different ways the crisis is being described and discussed, including misinformation and propaganda
- record the response to the crisis
Russian military police have seized and destroyed books on Ukrainian history and culture in the occupied territories in the northeast of Ukraine. There are also cases of destruction and damage to the Ukrainian archives containing historicdocuments about the period of Soviet repression and there have been attempts to introduce a Russian re-educational program in Melitopol. The seizure and destruction of Ukrainian historical and fictional literature that does not meetthe requirements of Kremlin propaganda has begun. This is happening in the libraries of the occupied territories of Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv, and Sumy Oblasts, as reportedby the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on 24 March last year.
But at its core, and from the beginning, this Ukrainian conflict has been a war over language and identity. And Ukraine’s librarians are key players. Most wars are fought over who will define the future. The Ukrainian war is a struggle over who will define the past. Is Ukrainian identity real or a fiction? That is the fundamental question of the conflict. The Ukrainians have given their answer.
Meanwhile, the business of libraries continues despite the physical destruction. They maintain the logistical underpinning of Ukrainian culture. “The libraries follow their readers anywhere,” Oksana Bruy, President of the Ukrainian Library Association has been quoted as saying, “So in Kharkiv, which is very often bombed, a lot of people live in the metro. Librarians bring the books to them. People need to read in bomb shelters, too. That’s where they most need to read. She goes on to say that “the library isn’t a building, the library is a community.”
In Kyiv on 10 October, the Russians bombed the Maksymovych Scientific Library of the Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University, Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, the National Scientific Medical Library of Ukraineand the Kyiv city youth library. Bruy has summed it up. “Maybe the Russians think we will be scared of their Shahed drones and rockets,” she says. “We just do our work every day.“
She and all of her unsung colleagues are truly heroes.