Saving digital history: U of A librarian part of global effort to preserve Ukrainian culture amid Russian invasion

A University of Alberta librarian is part of a global effort to help preserve Ukrainian websites and archives as Russia invades the country.

While Peter Binkley, a digital scholarship technologies librarian, may not be in the trenches at the frontlines of the war in Ukraine, he considers himself to be playing a critical role in their resistance by preserving Ukrainian culture.

The academic is part of more than 1,300 volunteers working on the Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) project identifying important historical materials, digital content, and archives at-risk of being lost forever.

“No doubt (many of) those archives have their own backup systems, and they might be okay, but those systems are vulnerable too,” Binkley told CTV News Edmonton. “The point is to copy this stuff outside of Ukraine onto servers that aren’t under threat of bombardment.”

“We just have to assume everything is vulnerable, and we are going to save it all,” he added. “Even if at the end of the day, only 0.01 per cent of what we save is actually needed because something was destroyed, we don’t know what 0.01 per cent that is going to be be.”

The effort has saved more than 30 terabytes of data from 3,500 websites ranging from scanned documents, site backups, and artwork.

“There’s an awful lot there that should be saved,” Binkley said.

“If it (backing up data) weren’t done, and stuff is lost, that’s a gap in the record,” he said. “As a librarian, I hate that. I don’t want that to happen.”

One of the first sites Binkley helped preserve was the Kharkiv School of Photography digital exhibition database, dating back more than 20 years.

“You click through these pages, and you see all kinds of things,” Binkley said. “Like, when teenagers (there) were adopting punk style. Saving that snapshot of their lives from that period is really important.”

“What’s made this fun for me was being exposed to Ukrainian culture on the web in a way that I’ve never looked at before,” Binkley added.

The collective of volunteers works with software that converts websites into a single file that can be stored outside Ukraine.

Binkley cites one example from early into the Russian military conflict where the team secured more than 100 gigabytes of data from a Ukrainian state archive, only for that server to go dark hours later.

“I don’t even know if we know what happened,” Binkley added. “Whether it was bombed or lost power or just lost network.

“Clearly, the timeliness of saving this stuff is important. It’s very vulnerable. It’s very much under threat during the fighting.”

Anyone can join the SUCHO team, Binkley said, with a particular need for people who read Ukrainian or Russian.

Preserving Ukrainian culture seems even more important now as the Russian invasion inches closer to its second month, Binkley says.

“What we’ve seen is that the Russian theory of this action is that there’s no such thing as Ukrainian culture,” the librarian said.

“So if they take over,” he added, “if they put in a new administration in a university, along with all the other changes they make, they might say, get that Ukrainian stuff offline.

“So if that happens, we’ll have a record. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.”

For more information, visit SUCHO’s website

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Carlyle Fiset

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