Librarians and archivists around the world race to save Ukraine’s digital history

In early March, two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Carrie Pirmann came across a website dedicated to Ivan Mazepa, a 16th-century Ukrainian politician and patron of the arts. A 44-year-old librarian at Bucknell University, Pirmann had joined an international effort by fellow archivists to preserve the digital history of a beleaguered country, and the contents of Mazepa’s website, though obscure, seemed worth checking out. be saved.

The site contained a number of things: poems by Lord Byron written about Mazepa’s life and a catalog of centuries-old items detailing his various conquests. Pirmann opened its website scraper tool, saving the site and preserving its content.

Today, the original website is lost, its server space was probably the victim of cyberattacks, power failures or Russian bombings. But thanks to her, it remains intact on a server space rented by an international group of librarians and archivists.

“We try to save as much as possible,” Pirmann said. “Otherwise, we lose that connection to the past.”

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Buildings, bridges and monuments are not the only cultural monuments vulnerable to war. As the violence enters its second month, the country’s digital history – its poems, archives and images – risk being erased as cyberattacks and bombs erode the country’s servers.

Over the past month, a ragtag group of more than 1,300 librarians, historians, teachers and young children have banded together to save Ukraine’s internet archive, using technology to save everything from census data to poems. for children and Ukrainian basket weaving techniques.

The efforts, dubbed Safeguarding Ukraine’s Cultural Heritage Online, have kept more than 2,500 of the country’s museums, libraries and archives on rented servers, eliminating the risk of them being lost forever. Today, the all-volunteer effort has become a lifeline for Ukrainian cultural officials, who work with the group to digitize their collections in case their facilities are destroyed during the war.

The effort, experts said, underscores how volunteers, armed with low-cost technology, training and organization, can protect a country’s history from disasters such as war, hurricanes, earthquakes and fires.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” said Winston Tabb, dean of libraries, archives and museums at Johns Hopkins University. “Before, we didn’t really have the tools to even undertake this kind of initiative.

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The seeds of this international effort began online. On February 26, Anna Kijas, music librarian at Tufts University, issued an appeal on Twitter asking if volunteers would join her for a “virtual data rescue session” to preserve Ukrainian music collections that may be lost during the war.

It caught the attention of librarians and archivists around the world, including Quinn Dombrowski, an academic technology specialist at Stanford University, and Sebastian Majstorovic, a Vienna-based digital historian. They banded together, and amid sleepless nights across multiple time zones, they recruited, trained, and organized dozens of volunteers to help archive Ukraine’s historic websites.

Large portions of the Internet are periodically archived through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which partners with the organization, but SUCHO organizers also needed something more advanced, Dombrowski said. In many cases, the Wayback Machine can dig into the first or second layer of a website, she added, but many materials, like images and uploaded files, on Ukrainian cultural websites could be seven or eight layers deep, inaccessible to traditional web crawlers.

To do this, they turned to a suite of open-source digital archiving tools called Webrecorder, which has been around since the mid-2010s and used by institutions such as the UK National Archives and the National Library of England. ‘Australia. They also launched a global Slack channel to communicate with volunteers.

To archive, the volunteers mainly use the Webrecorder suite, the organizers said. There is Archive.webpage, a browser extension and standalone desktop application that archives a website as users browse through pages. Another is Browsertrix Crawler, which requires basic coding skills and is useful for “advanced explorations”, such as capturing expansive websites that may have multiple features such as calendars, 3D tours, or backlinks to navigate the site. And more recently, there’s Browsertrix Cloud, an easier-to-use automated version of the powerful Browswertrix crawler, which is popular with volunteers.

“It basically tries to imitate a human browsing the web,” said Ilya Kramer, the founder of Webrecorder. “And in doing so, it archives all network traffic, then everything stored in a file…which can be loaded from anywhere.”

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Over the past month, SUCHO has developed a systematic and creative way of doing its job. There is a main spreadsheet where the volunteers detail all the Ukrainian museums, libraries and archives that need their websites backed up or those that have been completed. To develop this list, the organizers of SUCHO receive advice from librarians and archivists around the world who may know of a rare museum in Ukraine that needs a backup of its work.

Other volunteers have become sleuths, using Google Maps to digitally walk the streets of Ukraine, looking for any sign that might say “museum” or “library” and trying to find out if it has a website that needs to be archive.

In other cases, when a bombing occurs somewhere, a group of volunteers dedicated to “situation monitoring” alert any volunteers who might be awake to search the websites of institutions in that area that need help. be backed up, lest they disconnect at any time.

“These are the times,” said Dombrowski, whose eight-year-old occasionally helps archive sites, “when future historians will celebrate or curse the people of our time for doing or not doing something in a way which can allow them to tell these stories across a larger story arc.

In just over a month, the volunteers backed up an extensive set of data. According to their website and their organizers, the volunteers preserved documents totaling 25 terabytes that include the history of Jewish towns in Ukraine, photographs of excavation sites in Crimea and digitized exhibits from the Kharkiv Literary Museum.

For Majstorovic, the importance of the work he helps organize was revealed a few weeks ago. At the beginning of March, he came across the website of the Ukrainian State Archives in Kharkiv. As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, he worried about how long the site would be active, fearing its servers could be exposed to cyberattacks or bombings.

He loaded the archive website into Webrecorder’s Browsertrix tool and let it do its thing. In the early morning, he collected more than 100 gigabytes of information, including district census records, criminal cases, and lists of people who had previously been persecuted in the area.

Within hours, the website was gone. But still, his records remained. Looking back, Majstorovic says that’s exactly why he does this job.

“If we can salvage these things, we prove that Ukraine has a history,” he said. “[If] they are gone forever…it just rips a black hole in the history of a place that will last forever.

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