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Preserving Ukraine's cultural treasures with digital tools


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally, tonight, we returned to the invasion of Ukraine.

There, as everywhere, much of contemporary life, including history and culture is documented in the digital space. With so much at risk, new efforts are taking on a new kind of digital cultural preservation.

Jeffrey Brown has a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Outward signs of destruction, homes, roads, whole city's, efforts to protect important monuments and artworks, and a less obvious, different kinds of risks to the digital world.

Quinn Dombrowski is a digital humanities specialist at Stanford University.

Quinn Dombrowski, Stanford University: We often don't think about it, but the Internet ultimately comes down to physical things. Web sites live on servers. And servers are physical things that can be destroyed, just like anything else.

And, these days, servers capture so much of modern life.

Jeffrey Brown: Anna Kijas is head of the Lilly Music Library at Tufts University.

Anna Kijas, Lilly Music Library, Tufts University: I became concerned that, if the physical artifacts, manuscripts ,books, scores, were destroyed or damaged during the invasion, that there wouldn't be anything left, if no one was interested or willing to secure and preserve the digital content.

Jeffrey Brown: Kijas and Dombrowski are founding members of Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, or SUCHO, focusing on the country's digital imprint, now at risk from damage to servers and other threats to countless Web sites of cultural institutions, libraries, schools, and so much more.

It's a different kind of cultural heritage, existing digitally and requiring digital preservation. That's where SUCHO steps in, scouring Web sites across Ukraine to create a new archive, kept safe and backed up on secure servers.

In some cases, these are digital versions of physical artifacts, like an important 18th century music manuscript at the National Library.

Anna Kijas: So, there are many other artifacts like that, where there may not be any other copy available outside of that one library. So it's really important that we're doing this work in order to help preserve and archive these materials, so that they can live on and other people can access them.

Jeffrey Brown: Other material is already digitized, important historical documents such as KGB files from the Soviet era, everyday items like an after-school program teaching children about railroads.

Quinn Dombrowski: We have gotten, I think, some of the biggest and most obvious ones. And now is the much harder work of tracking down all the smaller archives.

There's just beautiful and tremendously varied kinds of content out there that represent the lives and culture of people in Ukraine. And we're here to look for as many of them as we can find.

Jeffrey Brown: Multiple processes are used to save and backup this content. First, Web site URLs are uploaded to a tool called the Wayback Machine, which is connected to the Internet Archive, a free nonprofit digital library.

Then SUCHO's volunteers use free software called Webrecorder on their own computers to crawl or capture Web sites.

Quinn Dombrowski: They have multiple virtual browsers that sort of act as if they were humans going through the site page by page by page, finding new pages as it goes, and adding those to the list, then sort of go through the site 24 hours a day until they capture every single page on the site, and then create this archive file that can be saved on our servers.

Anna Kijas: So, even if the site goes down or the server is damaged, you can still go to the Internet Archive and see that Web site as it existed.

Jeffrey Brown: More than 1,300 volunteers are now involved, searching Web sites like Wikipedia, perusing lists of Heritage Sites, and, in some cases, even taking a digital walk through Ukrainian streets on Google Maps to find Heritage Sites at risk.

This is digital sleuthing to walk through the city itself and look for possible archives.

Quinn Dombrowski: Yes, people are becoming familiar with cities on the other side of the world looking for these places and trying to find some way to capture what we can.

Our 1,300 volunteers can't parachute into Ukraine and try to bundle away its statues, but we can protect other forms of cultural heritage. And these are things that are easy to overlook when sort of looking at the large scale of Ukrainian cultural heritage at risk. But it's a small piece and something that we can help with even from the other side of the world.

Jeffrey Brown: Even children can help says, Dombrowski, who has taught our own son how to archive Web sites.

Quinn Dombrowski: My 8-year-old loves archiving Ukrainian Web sites. And he knows he can always stay up a little late if he says, oh, come on, just three more sites before bed.

Jeffrey Brown: So far, the project has archived nearly 3,500 sites, with plenty left to do.

One possible use of this work, as evidence, legal and otherwise.

Anna Kijas: If there is any kind of erasure that happens or looting of physical artifacts, physical buildings, and so forth, there is the digital that exists.

And that can be used if there are war crimes committed, for example, or if there's any kind of a ratio or silencing of the Ukrainian identity.

Jeffrey Brown: What's the goal here? What happens to all this digital material?

Quinn Dombrowski: The best outcome for us is for none of this to be needed. We would like nothing more than, at the end of this, to find out that all of the servers are safe, all of the archivists are safe, and the sites will go back up, and life will continue as it did before.

Already, we're seeing that, unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case. And our goal is what's called digital repatriation. So we want to give this data back to the Ukrainian librarians and curators who care about it and who can take it forward into the future as soon as they're in a position to rebuild.

Jeffrey Brown: Until then, preservation of digital culture one Web site at a time.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: So grateful that this work is going on.

Thank you, Jeff.

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