Opinion | The Internet is key to saving the history of Ukraine

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The Library of Alexandria in Egypt was destroyed not once but at least three times: the first burning by accident, the last deliberately. The loss of the ancient world’s greatest treasure of knowledge might be the most famous example of culture as a casualty of war, but the phenomenon has persisted. Fortunately for Ukraine, one thing is different today: the Internet exists.

Archivists and librarians from around the world have been working to catalog thousands of websites containing snippets of Ukraine’s past and present, from policy documents and census data warehouses to poetry museums to a Soviet-era club that teaches children how to operate railways. Leading the way is a team of 1,300 volunteers called Save Ukrainian cultural heritage online, which estimates that it has backed up more than 3,500 pages so far. Others elsewhere are also contributing. Threats to these resources range from bombs that destroy servers to cyber attacks that cripple them. There is also the risk of self-censorship by those who fear becoming targets and that, if the invasion succeeds in toppling the government in kyiv, a new regime could erase any part of Ukraine’s past that does not align with Russia’s distorted narratives.

This last point explains why the work to save both physical and virtual history is so essential in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems determined not only to defeat the nation, but also to deny that it is a nation at all. The materials that the archivists are collecting from the Web constitute precisely the Ukrainian heritage that, according to him, does not exist. Parts of Ukraine’s history involving the Soviet Union also require preservation: see, for example, a site where researchers can access KGB recordsthat the SUCHO archivists downloaded, just in case, just a few days before the website became inaccessible.

All this has been possible in the digital age. As Stanford University organizer and academic technology specialist Quinn Dombrowski told us, the international cadre of participants could hardly fly to kyiv and smuggle valuable artifacts and documents out of the country. She and her cohorts were inspired by the effort after the election of Donald Trump in 2016 to preserve scientific information about climate change published on US government websites, which, of course, missing shortly after the opening. These events are a reminder of both how malleable the Internet is and how enduring it has the potential to be, as long as people take the right steps to protect it.

Those steps don’t have to happen like a fight once the war has already started. Ms. Dombrowski compares her group’s work to photos from the early days of the war of Ukrainian citizens making Molotov cocktails out of beer bottles and hand sanitizer: “It’s a love story, but it speaks to a failure of infrastructure “. The Internet, by presenting the opportunity to back up information before bombs drop or earthquakes strike, has given the world a tool to keep history a little safer. Governments, universities and other institutions should start using it.

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