Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online : how volunteers gathered around the world

Published on December, 12, 2022

[Illustration : Anonymous, Exterior of St Michael’s Monastery in Kiev, 1886 – 1896, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Online collection, Rijkstudio ]

Besson, Julie

SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online) is an initiative of over 1500 volunteers. It focuses on the safeguarding of digital heritage (websites, digitized collections, etc). Created soon after the beginning of the war, the teamwork managed to curate over 50 TB of data/around 5000 websites. Anna E. Kijas, a person behind the initiative of SUCHO answered our questions to better understand the work that has been accomplished by them. If you are interested in the work SUCHO is doing, you can reach out to them and volunteer here.

This article is available in French here. It is apart of a thematic dossier on endangered heritage.

Julie Besson : What made you sensitive to protect the digital heritage of Ukraine? 

Anna E. Kijas : My background is in library as well as musicology and I think quite a lot about access to information, in libraries, archives or museums. When I saw Russia was invading Ukraine, one of my thoughts was “What’s going to happen to the physical content but also to its digital footprint?”. In the past, I have worked on several digital projects as well as some data rescue and one of the things people don’t think about is that the data that lives on a website (text, high-quality resolution images, paintings…) /is on servers that need to be maintained and backed-up. When there’s natural disasters or human disasters, /it is very vulnerable and sometimes more at risk than physical artifacts because it is on a network, on an infrastructure that can be completely destroyed.

I started thinking about what I could do as a librarian with other librarians and people that work in information, science, and cultural heritage to help from thousands of miles away. We can’t help with the physical artifacts, but what can we do for the digital content so that there is evidence it existed and to help back it up in case the network infrastructure goes down.

J. B. : In less than a week, you managed to gather over 1000 people and you’re now more than 1500 all over the world. How did the project organize itself to be efficient?

A. K. : It was an effort that developed really quickly. We mobilized people primarily through social media and email lists, because many of us are part of organizations (library, disciplinary) and so we sent out emails asking people to volunteer. We made a Google form having people sign up  as volunteers. We had specific questions about what kind of work they would be doing and what kind of skills they might need so we could identify where we could put people. It was managing a very large-scale digital project and trying to keep it organized.

Within the first few days, by the 26th of February, I had sent out a request on Twitter to ask if people were requested in doing a data-rescue workshop and at that time, I was trying to keep it on a small scope of music collection. As a music librarian, I know there are some specific collections in Ukraine that are important, and I had my own network I could reach to. I started hearing from other people: Sebastian Majstorovic. He’s from Austria and he tweeted as well saying he would like to make a more broad effort for digital cultural heritage, Sebastian, Quinn Dombrowski and myself met within a few days online and we pulled in people from the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard as well as from the University of Alberta in Canada, and the Internet Archive. We started having a conversation and by March 1st, we launched SUCHO. We put  out another Google form and people poured in, one thousand within a few days, and we got to work.

We created a Slack channel, we made specific groups, we had workflows and tasks for who’s doing web crawling, who’s doing web archiving, who’s creating metadata, who’s doing data analysis. People started to self-identify what they are an expert in and started working on specific tasks.

Many hours – 10 to 12 hours a day – were spent talking to people and helping people learn how to do web archiving, what we are doing and what we are prioritizing. It was really intense.

J. B. : During the data collecting, how did you choose the websites to digitize?

A. K.  : In the first weeks, we were casting a big net and were looking for everything we could identify as cultural heritage in Ukraine. The important thing was everything we knew was hosted on servers in the country was at risk. We had volunteers submitting links to many institutions, to websites, to collections and we were sorting all that information and pushing it through the Internet archive’s WayBack Machine as well as our  Webrecorder software for “web archiving”. 

These were the two ways we were collecting the information, doing the crawling and web archiving.

After we started to get as many of these URLs and websites as we could, we started thinking more about strategies and prioritization. We had a group in SUCHO called “Situation monitoring” which is led by Erica Peaslee, an expert in information security. We were getting help from her and other volunteers on monitoring the ground, where there were attacks, alert for possible outages and that’s when we would have people focus on different regions in Ukraine. We would look at the institutions in the area and wonder if the servers were here and make sure we “web archived” their data. 

Also, the group was also looking at Google Maps and Open Street Maps to see where the institutions are. We were trying to find as much information as we could from the Internet, but  it’s not necessarily complete or comprehensive and we wanted to make sure we weren’t missing institutions, especially the small ones. Volunteers would even walk the street on Google Maps and identify cultural institutions. There are lots of different ways we were trying to prioritize what to focus on.   

J. B. : Did you contact Ukrainian cultural institutions or other cultural institutions and how did they react to the project and maybe partner with you? 

A. K. : There are a couple different stages through the project where we reached out to Ukrainian institutions. 

In the beginning, it was difficult. Communication was hard because we weren’t getting responses or we would have a response and then not hear back for weeks, which is understandable because it was the beginning of invasion and lots of things were happening on the ground (people leaving their home, going to fight…). We’ve been able to form relationships with the president of the Ukrainian Library Association and other cultural heritage workers at institutions across Ukraine. 

We’ve been trying to spread the word about the project as much as we can, especially when we knew that the Ukrainian institutions had collections that were important and might need help to safeguard or back them up. Some of those relationships have grown to the point where we have been able to provide digitization equipment to some of these institutions. Back in August, we were able to send a shipment of equipment to the Vernadsky National Library in Kyiv. They requested hardware, digitization scanners, cameras, computers, so they could do emergency digitization. We received requests from other libraries as well, like in Cherkasy, for overhead scanners so they can do book scanning. Our efforts from the beginning have been paying off. They’re aware of our work and very grateful for what we have been doing and now we’re able to also help them by having them digitize their collections. It’s been a challenge.

Thanks to our interactions with people in Ukraine, institutions, and our work with the National Library, we’ve been able to talk to UNESCO and IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions). They have been recognizing the work we have been doing with digital content, which is something they haven’t necessarily paid as much attention to because they were focused on protecting the physical cultural heritage. We’ve been able to demonstrate the need and the importance of protecting digital content as well. 

J. B. : How did you find partners to provide the equipment in Ukraine?

A. K. : We have been raising money, we have a page on Open Collective where we are accepting donations from organizations as well as individuals. One of the biggest funders and sponsors has been AWS Poland. They were able to supply us with a lot of equipment. We could select from the Amazon warehouses and send them over to Ukraine. We’ve been working with a cultural heritage institute in Poland, close to the borders of Ukraine, and they have been organizing shipments of different items, including packing materials for preservation of physical artifacts and so we were able to get the equipment shipped through them. 

We have been working with a couple of volunteers who have connections to some of these organizations or vendors that make digitization equipment. It’s a lot of logistics. Many of us were not necessarily from that side of operational work. 

We are establishing relationships to get discounted equipment or to ship it from within Ukraine and trying to figure out the best ways to make it happen.

Our lists of sponsors and partners that support our work is available on the website :  https://www.sucho.org/partners

J. B. : You digitized over 50TB of web archives, and you are in the process of curating, do you continue to track websites to digitize? 

A. K. : It definitely slowed down in terms of how many new websites or content we are “web archiving”. We reached the point where we’re not able to really find more. But our volunteers are still looking. When they find content that needs to be archived, they first archive it with the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine . If there’s interactive content or content that can’t be crawled with the Wayback Machine, that’s  when the Webrecorder software comes in. 

The effort has really come to curating all this data so we have descriptive metadata information so we can share it with the institution. If they need the data because their collection has been damaged or because the website is completely offline, we can hand it back to them and give them the data. 

A big part of our work is also about the donations and sending the physical equipment because we have received requests  from many institutions and  it’s important to help them. A scanner can cost up to 20 000 US dollars so that’s a very expensive resource. 

We’re also partnering in Ukraine to create training resources so an Ukrainian heritage worker who may not be familiar with digitization is able to watch a Youtube video in Ukrainian on how to use the equipment and do the scanning and be able to do it themselves.

J. B. : The next phases of the project will allow people to discover those websites and to learn more about Ukrainian Culture. What do you see next for SUCHO ?  How do you want to curate this content ? 

A. K. : There are a few different ways we’re already doing this. 

First of all, our intention is not to keep the 50 TB of data and over 5000 websites we’ve collected. We don’t want to create a database we will be maintaining permanently.  It is for a short duration to safeguard and the goal is to give it back to the institution if  it needs it. 

In the meantime, we are doing smaller curated projects. We have a gallery, which is one way to showcase some of the objects that have been web archived. We are using it to raise visibility and awareness so people around the world can see the wide variety of what cultural heritage in Ukraine is. We have volunteers working on this gallery where they identify objects and describe  them using a selection of metadata. 

We’re also focusing on including objects from institutions that have been damaged or destroyed. We get that information from UNESCO and the Ministry of Culture in Ukraine. We’re looking at what we “web archived” and highlighting that content. 

It is also to encourage people or organizations who have the resources to fund and donate towards the equipment that needs to be sent to Ukraine. 

We also have been talking with scholars, so they are able to use items in the gallery for teaching or use  them with students at universities. Either they can contribute and do research, or we can create resources, so they learn more about a specific tradition or artifact. 

We also have a collection of memes. Memes are being curated by volunteers in SUCHO and they are focusing on archiving as many of them as possible. They are a familiar thing; they also can vanish. If no one’s archiving them, then they may disappear, or people might not be aware of them. The purpose is to create an archive that can be studied, used for research, for teaching.  It is to see how the events were perceived and what this tells us about a certain point in time. In Ukraine, a faculty member is working with the group and is using the memes with its students to help them understand how people are perceiving and experiencing the war through memes. The group made a tutorial to help people collect the memes. It also tells people what’s the scope, what to avoid (pro-war, or if they’re from an artist, under a license…). 

With all of the data we “web archived”, we are also working on curating it and making it less messy. Our goal is to have a public facing so that institutions will be able to go to the website and see if we “web archived” it, if they can get it back and look at the metadata they need. 

As we have been doing this work, we are all learning a lot.

This was not the kind of work we’re necessarily prepared for. For those of us working in  cultural institutions, we do have expertise on how to create  metadata, to curate, to scan, etc. but being able to manage something at this scale during war, nobody prepares you for this. One of the conversations we have been having amongst ourselves but also with people from the outside (journalists, organizations) is that we want to think about how to prevent this kind of loss to happen in the future, and how do we think about the content we create and put online in a way that isn’t relying on one organization. Because if it breaks down, things will disappear. We’re trying to find ways to advocate and ways to preserve digital cultural heritage in mutual and collaborative ways, whether that might be a network or shared repositories, shared responsibilities between institutions that have resources and institutions in areas of the world that do not have access to those resources. We’re still figuring it out, it’s going to take a lot of conversation but it’s also important to consider and keep in mind.  

To cite this article : BESSON, Julie (2022), Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online : how volunteers gathered around the world, Metis Lab, published on December, 12, 2022,

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