Opinion |  The Internet is key to saving Ukraine's history

Opinion | The Internet is key to saving Ukraine’s history

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

Archivists and librarians around the world have been working to catalog thousands of websites that hold pieces of Ukraine’s past and present, ranging from policy papers and census data stores 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 dubbed Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, which estimates it has backed up more than 3,500 pages so far. Others elsewhere are chipping in, too. The threats to these resources range from bombs demolishing servers to cyberattacks crippling them. There’s also the risk of self-censorship from those who fear becoming targets, and that, should the invasion succeed in toppling the government in Kyiv, a new regime could erase whatever parts of Ukraine’s past do not align with Russia’s distorted narratives.

This last point explains why the work to save physical and virtual history alike is so essential in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears determined to not only defeat the nation but also deny that it’s a nation at all. The materials the archivists are combing from the Web help constitute precisely the Ukrainian heritage that he claims doesn’t exist. The parts of Ukraine’s history that involves the Soviet Union also requires preservation: See, for example, a site where researchers can access KGB records, which the SUCHO archivists downloaded, just in case, only days before the website became inaccessible.

All of this has been made possible in the digital era. As organizer and academic technology specialist at Stanford University Quinn Dombrowski told us, the international cadre of participants could hardly all fly into Kyiv and smuggle precious artifacts and documents safely out of the country. She and her cohorts were inspired by the effort after Donald Trump’s 2016 election to preserve scientific information on climate change posted on US government websites — which, sure enough, disappeared soon after the inauguration. These events are a reminder both of how malleable the Internet is and how enduring it has the potential to be, as long as people take the proper steps to protect it.

Those steps don’t have to happen as a scramble once war has already begun. Ms. Dombrowski compares her group’s labors to photos in 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 introducing the opportunity to back up information before bombs fall 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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