I had spent the previous days exchanging emails with them about a tweet that had gone viral: “Bloody hell. Looking at a message from the Ukraine Library Association concerning the cancellation of their forthcoming conference. It basically says, ‘We will reschedule just as soon as we have finished vanquishing our invaders’. Ukrainian Librarians, I salute you.”
It seemed to capture the Ukrainian spirit of defiance in the face of overwhelming military power.
In one of their last emails, written to the sound of shelling and sirens, one of them mentioned that she was staying in Kyiv with a small group of colleagues to coordinate efforts to combat Russian disinformation during the invasion. Since then, silence.
I know from my exchanges with colleagues in Ukraine that other than the threat to themselves and their families, they fear one thing above all – that Putin’s real agenda isn’t occupation or some historical re-connection, but erasure. The erasure of the Ukrainian people, their culture, their literature and language. Erasure of the idea of Ukraine as a free and democratic sovereign nation.
I asked one of them what we could do in the West. They told me that one thing we can do is keep speaking about Ukraine, keep reminding people of their culture, to keep the idea of their country alive in our hearts and minds. And, ultimately, to ensure that Russia is held to account.
It may seem odd to speak about libraries, archives and databases in the midst of a war. But we have seen enough of conflict around the world to know that the first resort of tyrants is often to bomb the archives and shell the libraries. You disrupt and destabilise a people by disrupting their sense of self – their language, their literature, their culture.
It is also sadly always true that a population is easier to control when denied access to education and critical literacy – the very things that we are committed to provide as librarians.
When it comes time to recover and rebuild, people often turn to the library as a place of trust, truth, peace and even reconciliation. The process of recovery post-conflict depends on the restoration of
basic systems – births, marriages, deaths, bank accounts – which themselves depend completely on the integrity of the public record.
It is 2022. We ought to be coming together after the pandemic in a spirit of shared humanity and peace. Instead, Eastern Europe rings once more with the sound of shells and missiles.
I hope I will hear from my colleagues in the Ukrainian Library Association again. I hope their great works are safe in their libraries. I hope that peace is restored and that justice is swiftly done.
Until it is, the only thing I can do – the only thing any of us can do - is to keep the idea of Ukraine alive with our words.
Nick Poole is the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)