First document, then rebuild: experts on the restoration of destroyed libraries by russia


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As of July 3, russia has damaged or destroyed at least 598 libraries in Ukraine. Of course, as the fighting and rocket attacks continue, it is still premature to talk about restoring damaged collections and rebuilding demolished buildings, and it is impossible to obtain definitive data on the state of Ukraine’s library system. Nevertheless, a strategy for rebuilding destroyed libraries should be developed as soon as possible so that it can be implemented when circumstances permit.

We asked Ukrainian cultural workers and organizers of charitable foundations working on rebuilding damaged buildings by russia what principles to follow when planning the restoration of destroyed libraries.

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What is the strategy

There are two main approaches to protecting endangered assets: physical storage and digitalization. It’s a rather banal principle, but it works. At post impreza, we put a lot of effort into duplicating the “content” in both contexts, physical and digital, as much as possible.


The strategy for restoring libraries should be as follows. First, it is necessary to document what has been destroyed and lost. It’s important to restore and keep in order library lists and catalogs, as well as to document in detail the circumstances of the loss. This documentation will later enable a comprehensive restoration effort. Of course, this is a complicated and slow process, but we have to work to find out exactly how much we have lost and who was responsible on the russian side.


Secondly, based on this list, you can work on restoring the collection and at the same time create a list of new books that should complement the restored libraries.


If we find ourselves needing to rebuild the library from scratch, it is important to recreate as much as possible what was lost and to use this historical moment to update the library and its focus.

Role of Ukrainians in the restoration

To help restore the collections destroyed by Russia, Ukrainians can contribute to replenishing the lost books. It’s the same as with museums — just as a valuable painting is often best kept in a museum for public use rather than in a private collection, a valuable book belongs in a public library and not in a home. When libraries that are being restored make requests, we should share our private libraries and help in the search for rare items.


As for those Ukrainians who are now abroad, we are incredibly grateful for their valuable social capital, their knowledge of the local context and their local contacts. We need to continue to disseminate information and discuss the reality of the destruction of libraries internationally, backing up our claims with specific data while naming those responsible.

Library as an educational center

Our foundation helps communities restore social institutions. In particular, our volunteers have already cleared rubble out of several damaged libraries in the Kyiv region.


Libraries often serve as important community centers in villages and small towns. Recently, due to the New Ukrainian School reform, many educational institutions have been optimized,  with libraries being placed in schools. Currently, our foundation will be restoring three of these libraries located within schools in the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions, but our work will not just focus on restoring their collections.


The library should evolve into educational centers for the community, where villagers can not only read the books they need, but also discuss them, i.e. it should be a club-like place with additional services.


It should be possible to hold an event, connect to the Internet, get remote legal advice, or drink coffee or tea.


Such formats have been implemented in Ukraine for several years now, and this is a successful strategy for bringing people back to library premises. Because here we are talking not only about promoting access to books or the Internet, but also fostering the return of intergenerational communication and good community.


As for the library collections, it’s important to recognize that, in addition to the damage caused by direct destruction, a large number of books are being removed from libraries as part of decommunization and de-russification. However,  they should be replaced by high-quality Ukrainian and English-language literature. Books should be interesting to the reader. In particular, this is an important part of the reintegration of the de-occupied territories, as well as a way to popularize joining the European family. In fact, as part of the restoration of trust between residents of different territories of Ukraine, libraries should be saturated with high-quality books.

Creating effective libraries

Managing libraries has never been within the purview of the Ukrainian Book Institute, and therefore, we cannot be entrusted with their restoration at the state level. The restoration of destroyed libraries is the responsibility of local governments and the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. However, we at the UBI are trying to draw attention to the devastated  libraries, particularly in the international community.


Thus, we presented the Sensitive Content exhibition at the book fairs in London and Leipzig. This is an author’s installation by Daria Bila and Sofia Hupalovska in which the designers used exclusively authentic furniture damaged by the enemy invasion. Each item has a QR code with its history. The exhibition makes an incredible impression on visitors. Now this project is on display at the central library in Berlin, it will be there until October, and we hope to relocate it thereafter. I hope that through this effort, we will be able to raise some funds for the restoration of libraries.


The Reading Development Strategy, approved by the Cabinet Ministers for the period up to 2032, is a framework document under the banner “Reading as a Life Strategy.” It contains two strategic directions, a number of strategic goals, and a number of tasks to achieve these goals. There are also tasks for libraries:


  • Ensuring the formation of an optimal network of public libraries that meets the needs of territorial communities;
  • Ensuring that the collections of public libraries and libraries of educational institutions are regularly updated;
  • Ensuring the informatization of public libraries and libraries of educational institutions;
  • Ensuring that the renovation of library buildings as well as the construction of new libraries follow the European model.


In our current circumstances, the final task explicitly involves restoring destroyed library buildings. However, this must be done while keeping the first task in mind, namely, ensuring the formation of an optimal network of public libraries. The need to optimize the library network has long been overdue, and this work simply must be done before renovation commences.

More support

If we look at the stages of the Strategy’s implementation, we see that the first stage is devoted to measures for restoring and protecting the Ukrainian book market and library sector. This also underlines the state’s intention to restore damaged libraries.


Now, when no funds can objectively be allocated from the state budget to replenish library collections, and very little can come from local budgets, the main responsibility for filling libraries with new books lies with you and me, the citizens of our heroic country at war.


In these times, most people are facing hardships. Incomes have dwindled, and available funds are being redirected to the needs of the Armed Forces and other war-related expenses. But I assume that we still have modest reserves.


I ask: can every average Ukrainian family afford to buy one book a year and donate it to the library? Can every registered library reader bring at least one new book a year? Of course, these are rhetorical questions, because we are talking about 200-300 UAH (5.50-8.20 USD) a year. Our task is to make this into a widespread movement.

Experience of restoring a library that was under occupation

We already had experience in restoring a library. In 2014, we left Luhansk, took the documents out and handed them over to the regional administration, which had resumed operations in Sievierodonetsk.


In 2015, we realized that the librarians of the region who worked in the territory controlled by Ukraine (the north of the region) needed methodological support. So we agreed to reopen the library from scratch in Starobilsk.


Our initial tasks were primarily methodological: defining the library network, facilitating professional development, and participating in national and international professional conferences. Colleagues from the Ukrainian Library Association helped a lot. We managed to revive the regional center, the Luhansk regional branch of ULA, and to get actively involved in professional life. We also relaunched the website (the website and all communication were saved, as all resources were controlled by the directorate). A little later, we started collecting books for the new library. Our initial goal was to gather a modest collection of  up to 2,000 books, but things took a different turn. When we announced via social media that the relocated library was collecting books, we received many shipments of books from readers, publishers, authors, bloggers. In seven years, we have amassed  12,000 brand new Ukrainian books without relying on budget funding.


By 2018, the Luhansk library had resumed all its usual functions as a regional library, albeit with limited resources: 140 square meters of space, a collection of 12,000 books and a staff of 21 librarians.


Unfortunately, in 2022, after the invasion, even these modest resources were lost yet again. We evacuated people and small equipment. We immediately started working remotely (a skillset acquired during the pandemic). We developed the concept of a traveling library — a straightforward solution in times of crisis. We reconnected with our users and started with sustainable forms of work that could be implemented online. These included a programming club for children, Ukrainian language courses, a media school, online yoga, book reviews, meetings with writers, and more. Gradually, we started to organize offline events in the cities where our employees were based.


Immediately after fleeing the occupation, we started collecting data on the whereabouts of library workers from our region. We established contacts, created a closed group, and held meetings once a month via Zoom. Once a month, we organized educational events to maintain the professional level of the librarians. Our first topics were: “How to set up remote work in the library” and “How to behave in the occupied territories.” Several of our meetings were devoted to brainstorming on how to rebuild the work of libraries after the victory. The result was our common vision of what the libraries of Luhansk region should look like after the victory.

Importance of public dialog

When it comes to restoring destroyed libraries, the primary objective should not be to recreate the old scheme and network. It is necessary to analyze which settlements need restored libraries and which do not. This depends on the number of people who will stay or return. For this, preliminary monitoring is necessary to predict how many people will return to the devastated cities. We mustn’t shy away from admitting that if a village has a population of 100, there is no need for a library there. It is better to rebuild the infrastructure and establish mobile or remote services. Our experience in 2022-2023 proves that this is feasible and effective.


It is necessary to introduce the circulation of library books within the settlements of territorial communities.


Central community libraries should evolve into institutions that not only serve the residents of the settlement, which is the cultural center of the community, but also become:


  • Logistics centers (organizing the delivery and collection of books);
  • Training centers (offering advanced training for  librarians and classes for community members);
  • Social hubs (spaces where people can psychologically adjust, find activities and community events — we gather to do something together: paint, discuss books, plant trees, learn a language, learn to play musical instruments, study AI, develop volunteer initiatives, etc.). These hubs also have a transport delivery office, a rental office for various items and more.


We should avoid the approach of first rebuilding an aesthetically pleasing building and then deliberating about its function. First, we should develop the content of the library’s work. We need to understand what the population of a particular settlement wants from the library, which means consulting with the people and then developing a strategy. This should be done in collaboration with the residents.


In some places, it might be a small room for books and a huge coworking space. In others, it could be a conference room and a large book depository. Some communities might prefer a  gallery with a coffee shop next to the books, while others will choose a traditional library — books and silence, with separate study areas. 


The worst thing we can do is build standard libraries or cultural service centers that are uniform for all settlements. Each library should be unique, conceived by the community members themselves — “their own.”


Having a central library capable of delivering library services to remote settlements is better than having a large number of small, unequipped libraries whose employees cannot reach the center to get the same services.


Our experience building the library collection from 2015 to 2022 demonstrated that everything can be achieved  even without money. Hypothetically, if every resident of a community buys one book for their library, it would create a sufficient library stock. Are community residents ready to restore their libraries in this way? I am sure they are. We just need to engage them in the process and work collaboratively.

Related: The Will to Rebuild: Why the Ukrainian Publishing Industry Keeps on Going

New leaders and security for books

In our opinion, it is important to support and motivate library leaders not to leave the library, but to work toward building the future of libraries and Ukraine.


Collections that have artistic, historical or literary value should be digitized, as this is the only way to preserve this heritage in a state of war. Unfortunately, a unified catalog for access to digitized manuscripts, documents, and books stored in libraries is still under development. Many academic libraries have their own services and databases with digitized copies. However, this is an exception rather than a state policy for preserving cultural heritage.


We understand that, first and foremost, valuable copies must be secured — transported to specialized storage facilities in cities far from the front lines or abroad.


Digitized data must also be protected. If a server is physically destroyed, access to its data  should not be lost. Cloud storage solutions with archiving and remote access can solve this problem.


Regarding the restoration of destroyed libraries, it is first necessary to define the functions of the library. This will enable us to ensure that the rebuilt libraries can fully fulfill these functions and help us determine the most appropriate format. Our strategy should consider the library within its broader context and determine what role it can play in shaping future Ukrainian society, as well as its tasks and opportunities in the nation-building process, urban planning and human rights.


The strategy should be comprehensive, involving all stakeholders. First of all, librarians – from bibliographers to methodological centers and national libraries. And of course, it should involve  the community the library serves. The recently adopted strategy for promoting reading, which promises a complete renewal of the country’s entire library network, gives libraries a glimmer of hope. This strategy primarily addresses material and infrastructural issues.


The willingness of many activists, opinion leaders, organizations, and publishers to collect books for the de-occupied regions is incredibly gratifying. We don’t know exactly how many books we are talking about, given that there are small and large book drives at the local and national level, but the desire to help libraries remains strong. 

Role of charitable foundations in restoration

Charitable foundations, just like any other voluntary public associations, can help restore book collections: they can purchase them with charitable funds and transfer them to libraries that they deem fit, they can organize collections, or simply raise awareness about existing initiatives. They can partner with those who have experience in this area. Librarians and libraries are always happy to receive such contributions.


Since the establishment of our foundation, one of our key tasks has been to help libraries update their collections. We launched a Books collection program. Under the terms of the campaign, anyone can buy a package of books from Ukrainian publishers by transferring the appropriate amount to the foundation’s account. The selected package of books will be sent to the library specified by the benefactor.


However,  no matter how hard philanthropists try, they will not be able to meet all the book needs of libraries, nor should that be expected of them. Charitable foundations and public organizations provide assistance in this area, but state institutions should take the lead in updating library collections.

Foreign support

Unfortunately, no one has complete statistics on the number of libraries that have been fully destroyed or damaged.


We have a project called “Working for Victory,” a grant program to support Ukrainian libraries during the war. The Ukrainian Library Association administers a competitive grant process  using funds received from the American Library Association’s Ukrainian Library Support Fund, which was created in cooperation with us and accumulates charitable contributions from Americans to help Ukrainian librarians. Our American colleagues strive to help Ukrainians preserve libraries and library collections, provide uninterrupted library services, and provide financial assistance to librarians affected by the russian invasion.


To date, we have held two rounds of grants, and the Ukrainian Library Association has distributed a total of 500,000 UAH (approximately 13,615 USD) in charitable assistance. This  financial support is designed to support projects aimed at restoring and preserving Ukrainian libraries affected by the hostilities or the actions of occupying forces and administrations.This includes funding for repairs, purchasing equipment, and replenishing book collections and other resources. It also aims to strengthen the resource base of libraries providing services to internally displaced persons, combat veterans, online learners, etc., and offers support to  librarians who have found themselves in challenging life circumstances due to the hostilities.

New models of existence for libraries

We are constantly engaged in contemplating the future of libraries, often discussing it at professional meetings and forums. The theme of library restoration and revival will be the main topic at the XIII Lviv Library Forum in Lviv, this coming September. While it’s currently challenging to make concrete predictions, one thing is clear — libraries will transform. They’ll be different, adopting new methodologies and approaches to their work. New models of libraries may emerge: not every village and town will be able to rebuild a library physically, leading to the rise of  mobile libraries and bibliobuses. Library collections will also be updated.


Finally, libraries will shed (and are already actively shedding) outdated, useless Soviet-era literature; in Ukrainian libraries, the bulk of literature will be in Ukrainian; considering the damage inflicted on printing houses and publishers, e-books will likely constitute a  significant portion of Ukrainian library collections. There are many tasks at hand, including the creation of a unified electronic catalog, further digitization of libraries, and the creation of a National Electronic Library.


The state’s criteria for evaluating and funding library activities needs to be revised, and we need to introduce international standards. Under the current system, the funding a library receives depends on the population as well as the books in circulation in the  area it covers. This means that the reconstruction of libraries in towns and villages that were destroyed — and where people have left and have yet to return — is highly unlikely. Furthermore, establishments that lack funding will struggle to attract young, creative individuals as staff, further hindering the revitalization and creation of new libraries.


Our president Oksana Bruy often says  “Libraries are about everything.” And it rings true.


Libraries are about fostering digital literacy and nurturing creative talents. They are about community initiatives and education. They are about providing space for leisure and meeting places. They are about comprehensive community support, and of course, they are also about reading. It is critical that both the government and the community understand the multi-faceted role libraries play, as that will help ensure that their restoration and reconstruction is carried out in a manner that  is comprehensive and holistic. As we build new schools and hospitals, we must also construct new libraries, for where there is an active, modern library, there is an active and cohesive community.


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