Ukrainian libraries: two years under fire. An interview with Oksana Bruy

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Library interior.

Marking the second year of the war in Ukraine on 24 February 2024, this interview with Oksana Bruy, President of the Ukrainian Library Association and Deputy Director of the Yaroslav Mudryi National Library, offers her perspective on the devastating impact of war on Ukrainian libraries, the challenges librarians face and their vision on the future.

Oksana was a guest at the EUI Library on 23 and 24 February 2023. Over those two days, she engaged in a thought-provoking roundtable chaired by Professor Regina Grafe and hosted by the EUI Library, and was a presenter at the TESTO book festival, where she shared her unique perspective on libraries’ and librarians crucial role during war. Her message was clear: libraries are more than buildings; they are bastions of hope, offering critical support in war-torn communities. As vital repositories of cultural heritage, they safeguard the memory and identity of communities threatened by war.

An edited version in Italian of her interventions were published in Volume 41, no. 4 of Biblioteche Oggi.

Read the full 2024 interview of Oksana Bruy with Monica Steletti here:

MS: The war in Ukraine is unfortunately in its second year. Can you give us an update on how academia is coping with the situation and more specifically about the current situation of libraries in Ukraine? (statistics 2023)

OB: The ongoing war in Ukraine has had a devastating impact on the country’s academic institutions and libraries. Both deliberate attacks and collateral damage have resulted in library closures, destruction of collections, and loss of cultural heritage. Additionally, some libraries have been forced to close by local authorities.

As of February 24, 2024, the full extent of the damage is still being assessed because updated statistics will be issued in June 2024, but initial reports paint a concerning picture. The most recent data available suggests the war has affected all types of libraries in Ukraine, including national, regional, public, school, and university libraries. The number of operational libraries dropped to 26,281 by the beginning of 2023 compared to the previous year, representing a loss of approximately 4,000 libraries in the first year of war alone.

Furthermore, many universities have been forced to close campuses or move to online instruction due to safety concerns and infrastructure damage. This has disrupted academic programs and research activities. Despite current challenges, Ukrainian universities and research institutions have emerged as crucial players in the war effort, contributing on multiple fronts. They actively support the defense and assistance of the armed forces by developing and assembling vital equipment like drones, demining devices, prosthetic arms and legs, and much more. They also provide relief to the wounded and play a significant role in reviving life in liberated territories.

MS: You pointed out last year during your presentation at the EUI roundtable that the role of librarians and libraries became central in supporting communities during this war, inside and outside Ukraine. How has it evolved? Have you been able to maintain that central role?

OB: Despite the immense challenges, Ukrainian libraries remain central to communities, offering essential support services such as internet access, study spaces, legal or psychological consultations, language courses in English and Ukrainian and, of course, books. They also foster a sense of community cohesion and strength. However, in many communities in remote or frontline areas, many libraries are sadly closed, destroyed, or lack librarians. The constant threat of shelling makes it impossible for some to operate.

MS: What are the main challenges you are facing following the destruction caused by Russian attacks?

OB: Over these past two years, war has inflicted deep wounds on Ukrainian libraries affecting 800 public and university libraries along with 3,700 school libraries, ranging from complete destruction to partial damage. Finding resources for reconstruction as well as librarians is a daunting task. An example is the Kherson Regional Library’s tragic fate of being reconstructed three times, before being destroyed again in November 2023. However, the Ukrainian librarians continue to stand tall as they salvage what they can and relocate collections to safer spaces. And, more importantly, we librarians dream of rebuilding even better libraries for the future: spacious, bright and warm, with modern books and equipment at the disposal of all communities.

MS: At the EUI, since 2022, we have been hosting around 100 Ukrainian scholars studying and researching in our academic community. This is an important solidarity component among universities, aiming to support Ukrainian human capital. However, this also means “brain drain”. What role could universities and academia abroad play to counter the possible side effect of support?

OB: It is true that the war has led to the displacement of millions of Ukrainians, including many scientists, academics and students who fled to universities abroad. Moreover, Ukrainian academic institutions are also facing funding shortfalls due to the war, which affects their ability to function effectively. This has created challenges for higher education and research activities leading to the so called “brain drain”. The potential return of these scholars requires a collaborative approach between foreign and Ukrainian universities and the Ukrainian government. For instance, the government should announce the first step of a well-thought-out policy for the return of “brains” to Ukraine. Brain drain can also have positive aspects, such as fostering knowledge transfer and collaboration in both sending and receiving countries. The key lies in creating a framework that encourages eventual return and sustained engagement with Ukraine’s rebuilding efforts.

MS: What message or request would you like to share with the international community about the situation in Ukraine?

OB: Ukrainians long for an end to the war and sufferings as much as our world allies. Thousands of lives – young and old – are cut short or irrevocably changed. But Ukraine stands firm, refusing to yield to aggression. We fight not just for ourselves, but for the principles of freedom and justice in Europe and in the world against the barbaric Russian aggression and war. I want to thank everyone who supports Ukraine.

Concerning libraries, I have repeatedly expressed as President of the Ukrainian Library Association and on a personal level, unwavering appreciation for the support from colleagues around the world. It has been a real source of strength. On a positive note, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) upheld its commitment to professional ethics by excluding the Russian National Library from its membership in late 2023.

MS: The road to healing for Ukrainian society after this war will be long and arduous. The American philosopher bell hooks often emphasized the importance of community-based healing in overcoming trauma and division. Do you see any resonance between these ideas and the potential role of libraries in supporting the healing process in Ukraine?

Yes, absolutely. In September of last year, at one of the largest libraries fora in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Library Association and the Yaroslav Mudryi National Library of Ukraine defined the vision of Ukrainian libraries for the future. Libraries are a space for collaboration—a space fostering strength, growth, and maturation of people within communities, shaping not only the destiny of the community but also contributing to the future trajectory of Ukraine.

While the situation in Ukraine remains complex and challenging, it is crucial for us to collectively embrace hope for a positive resolution. Sustaining this hope demands continued dedication and action from both the Ukrainian and the international community.

Note: This interview was conducted in written form by Monica Steletti and Oksana Bruy. I am grateful to Pep Torn and Elena Asciutti for their insights on the interview questions.

More on being a Ukrainian scholar abroad in this Migration Policy Center blog by Iuliia Lashchuk (March 6, 2023)

More on Oksana Bruy and engaged Ukrainian librarians in this Guardian’s article (December 2022).