Volunteers Unite to Archive Ukrainian Cultural Heritage
March 8, 2022
One week after launching the initiative Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO), co-organizers Quinn Dombrowski (Stanford University), Anna Kijas (Tufts University), and Sebastian Majstorovic (Austrian Center for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage) report that the project’s 1,000 volunteers from across the world have captured over 1,500 Ukrainian museum and library websites, digital exhibits, text corpora, and open access publications.
“We noticed that people had submitted major Ukrainian cultural heritage sites to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine immediately after the Russian invasion,” said Anna Kijas. “But many of those crawls only meaningfully captured the front page of the site – they were missing most of the digitized collections and multimedia holdings.”
SUCHO has been taking a multi-pronged approach to web capture: submitting more detailed manifests of URLs to the Wayback Machine to ensure better coverage, gathering data and files from major collections and adding them to an Internet Archive collection for easier discovery, and creating high-fidelity web archive files that can be “played back” in a browser as if they were a live site, using the open source software WebRecorder.net developed by Ilya Kreymer. “WebRecorder is the best web archiving tool I have ever seen,” said Sebastian Majstorovic. “By emulating a full browser that interacts with a website like a human user would, we have even been able to navigate complex 3D virtual tours and save them offline.” The web archives captured with WebRecorder also embed images, videos, and PDF files, and the data can be extracted and recovered in case these websites need to be reconstructed because their servers have been disconnected or destroyed by the Russian military.
SUCHO is not the only initiative archiving Ukrainian websites; Archive Team has also been capturing Ukrainian government sites, and other websites in the .ua namespace, at scale. SUCHO has been coordinating with Archive Team on particularly challenging sites, and has also received support from the Internet Archive’s Mark Graham. Focusing specifically on cultural heritage has allowed SUCHO to direct more attention towards quality control; a team of Ukrainian and Russian speakers reviews the web archives created by technically-oriented SUCHO volunteers for completeness. Other SUCHO volunteers have been enriching Wikidata with updated links to current websites of Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions, whenever the team discovers broken or malware-infected sites.
Even after the immediate emergency of website archiving has passed, the group sees a long road ahead involving data curation and offering support to Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions as they get back on their feet. “We aren’t looking to build up our own digital collections or treat this as a research project for scholars in North America and Europe,” said Quinn Dombrowski. “Nothing would make us happier than for these files to be unneeded. But just in case these backups will be needed, we want to be able to put the files back where they belong: into the hands of Ukrainian librarians, archivists and curators.”
For the coordinators and the volunteers, SUCHO has offered a better outlet than anxiously watching the news. For some, it’s also personal: “Wars can irreversibly destroy a culture’s most treasured artifacts and historical sources. When the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina was razed to the ground in 1992 during the Siege of Sarajevo, 90% of the holdings were destroyed despite the selfless actions of many brave inhabitants of Sarajevo. Librarians died and got permanently injured smuggling out the oldest manuscripts,” said Majstorovic. “That irretrievable loss of cultural heritage in my father’s home country has had a profound impact on me as a historian, and was at the back of my mind when I saw the pictures from Ukraine.”
SUCHO has been funded by emergency grants from the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) and the European Association for Digital Humanities (EADH), and has received service credits and technical support from Amazon Web Services.
To get involved with SUCHO or learn more about the initiatives’s work, visit sucho.org.