Canadian archivists go down the digital rabbit hole to help save Ukrainian culture

In the fall, University of Alberta librarian Peter Binkley was teaching students — many of whom were Ukrainian and watching the class remotely — about good examples of historical websites, and he cited the interactive map of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Months later, as the Russian invasion put the digitized cultural history of Ukraine at risk, he would be saving that same cultural website from potential oblivion.

“It turned out to be, just by chance, one of the ones I first stumbled on when I was looking for sites to harvest,” he said.

Binkley is part of a global team of around 1,300 librarians and archivists, including Canadians, who are volunteering to save Ukraine’s cultural digital archives from potential destruction if servers are destroyed during Russia’s bombings of its cities.

This project, known as Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO), has so far captured and preserved more than 2,500 Ukrainian museum and library websites that may include thousands of digitized historical documents, art, music, images, oral histories and other digital exhibits.

That means the volunteers are meticulously crawling through these websites, but also digging deeper, going through the so-called rabbit hole of links to uncover many of the digitized collections.

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‘Chase all the rabbits’

“We chase all the rabbits. We want to find all of them and gather them up and keep them safe,” said Quinn Dombrowski, the academic technology specialist at Stanford University, and one of the co-founders of the project.

The SUCHO website shows the submitted links, which range from an online virtual tour of the archeological site Olbia, and the Kharkiv Holocaust Museum’s website, to an archeological map of Crimea. Beside each entry is a description, and its status: done, in progress, incomplete or failed.

The project uses the digital archive Wayback Machine, part of the Internet Archive, and the web archiving tool Webrecorder, to help save the data.

Quinn Dombrowski is the academic technology specialist at Stanford University, and one of the co-founders of the project. (Rod Searcey)

The risk of these collections disappearing comes from the risk of servers being destroyed during bombing of Ukraine cities. Some cities, such as the besieged port city of Mariupol, have been turned to rubble since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on Feb. 24.

“Some of the web sites may still remain up, but when you click through to go see the actual documents, they may not be there anymore,” said Kimberley Martin, a University of Guelph history professor, who also specializes in library sciences.

Dombrowski said initially they were also worried about the possibility that if the Russians were to take control of some of these servers, they might subvert the message of Ukrainian national identity. But there were also concerns that many Ukrainian sites are hosted by servers in Western Europe, and would be at risk because the server bills wouldn’t be paid, she said.

“If you don’t pay for your server, it goes down. So we’re trying to basically expand in our scope … to protect against all those kinds of risks,” she said.

Helping Ukrainians rebuild their sites ‘piece by piece’

Martin said her involvement began with collecting oral history web links. She said she would begin by looking at a map of Ukraine on Google Maps, starting from the outside of the country, “because if I was Putin that’s where I would be coming from.”

She said she would look at local museums, local history projects and community centres, see if they had a website, and whether there were collections that needed saving.

The Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online project has so far captured and preserved more than 2,500 Ukrainian museum and library websites, including the website for the National Library of Ukraine. (The National Library of Ukraine)

Now, Martin is the organization’s metadata co-ordinator, using a gigantic spreadsheet to keep track of what’s been collected in ways that will help Ukrainians rebuild their sites or their collections “piece by piece,” she said.

Binkley said he’s one of the “ground-level workers” poring through the sites, some of which are easier to document than others.

“You just point your crawler and software at it and it will download the first page, find all the links, follow all those links, download those pages, get more links and keep going until it’s not finding any new links within that website,” he said.

Kimberley Martin, a University of Guelph history professor who also specializes in library sciences, is the organization’s metadata co-ordinator. (University of Guelph)

Other sites, however, aren’t set up to make that process easy, he said.

“You really need a person to go in and click all the links that might have a map with markers on it, like a Google map. And a crawler won’t see those links. So a person has to click on each one to find them.”

‘Really brought home to me what we’re trying to save’

Binkley’s searches have focused on digitized libraries, since that’s his background, and have included many big research libraries with digitized historic books. But others he has encountered may be local public libraries where they might have only a couple of pages on local history. 

“Those really brought home to me what we’re trying to save here. You’ve got a public library website that looks just like the one for Edmonton Public Library.”

University of Alberta librarian Peter Binkley is part of a global team of around 1,300 librarians and archivists, including Canadians, who are volunteering to save Ukraine’s cultural digital archives.  (University of Alberta)

Dombrowski acknowledged that it’s a very strange project in which the best case scenario is that none of this is needed.

“We would dearly love nothing better than at the end of the war, sort of check in with everyone, all the sites back online,” she said.

“But it doesn’t seem likely that that’s how it’s going to go. And our goal is to get the stuff back in the hands of the people who made the sites and and care about this stuff.”

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