‘Islands of hope’: Ukrainian libraries respond to Russian invasion in surprising and heartbreaking ways — here’s how

Images of people sheltering at a library in Ukraine
Yuliia Holubenko, head of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Library of the Central Library in Kyiv, Ukraine, shared these photos of her family in the shelter constructed in the library basement. (Zoom)

Thousands of miles from UC Berkeley, in libraries across Ukraine, the squeak of shifted chairs has been replaced by the blare of air raid sirens, and the distant rattle of old pipes by the shudder of mortar shells.

That distressing reality came into sharper focus yesterday at “Voices from Ukraine,” a UC Berkeley Library event that centered the stories of 11 Ukrainian librarians and their colleagues. The featured speakers, representing a wide swath of the country, gave voice to their personal and professional challenges six weeks into the Russian invasion. The online event drew 300 participants from across the globe.

Fahrenheit 451 by (Ray) Bradbury comes to life in Ukraine today,” said Oksana Brui, president of the Ukrainian Library Association, as she described the burning of books in libraries in occupied territories. She also lamented the devastation of valuable cultural sites, including religious and historical buildings, monuments, museums, and libraries.

The Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, which developed an interactive map to document damage to those sites, had recorded 166 entries as of this publication.

Liladhar R. Pendse, UC Berkeley’s librarian for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, organized the event through numerous phone calls to Ukrainian colleagues. His aim was to give Ukrainian librarians the opportunity to describe what is happening in their country.

“The important thing is to hear from the people in the war zones, the information professionals, to give voice to them,” he said. “Because we see media reporting all sorts of things. But I want to see firsthand how the aggression against the country is targeting their cultural and historical heritage, and information infrastructure. And how they’re coping with the situation, as librarians.”

Here are four of the many ways that Ukrainian libraries — and the brave people who work in them — continue to serve their communities and country amid the struggles of war. 

Library destruction in Ukraine
Oksana Brui, president of the Ukrainian Library Association, shows images of some of the destruction of libraries, cultural sites, and bookstores in Ukraine. (Zoom)

1. Becoming a different kind of resource

Yuliia Holubenko, head of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Library of the Solomyansky District of the Central Library in Kyiv, never expected to sleep at her workplace. But with morning and evening airstrikes, her family was too afraid to sleep at home. She took her daughters, and dogs, to the shelter constructed in the library basement.

“We feel calmer there,” she said. “People hiding in the shelter have become one big family. To defeat the situation, we suggested reading the books, which we took from the library (shelves), and we also read fairy tales to the children.

“So we can say that libraries are important during the many periods of our unpredictable life.”

Holubenko also shared that library employees who have remained in Kyiv have been “engaged nonstop every day” in serving the community. Employees have done everything from purchasing medicine and food for those who can’t afford it to tending to the apartments of those who have fled. Those in regions of Ukraine with no military activity have volunteered by setting up activities for the children of displaced families, among other things. 

2. Continuing to offer programs — and stability — for kids

Liubov Savaryn, head of the Advertising and Project Activities Department in the Lviv Regional Library for Children, said stability can be a great reassurance for children. That’s why her library continues to offer reading programs for families, both residents and those displaced by the war.

“We try to promote literature, tell stories that promote psychological balance, and distract children from the horrors of the war,” she said. “We try to cheer them up, and entertain them, to believe that there is a time without explosions … and soon there will be spring and our victory.”

Musicians, clowns, and magicians are still regular performers at the library, Savaryn said, filling the space with the rewarding sound of children’s laughter. 

She said the library is very careful with children who have experienced trauma, often tapping the services of an on-site psychologist, and ensuring that employees receive relevant training. 

Images of children in a Ukrainian library
Liubov Savaryn, of the Lviv Regional Library for Children, said that her library is still offering reading programs for families. (Zoom)

3. Setting the record straight

Future generations will want — and need — to know the truth about the invasion.

“It’s highly important during the war to record the chronicle of current events and to form a source base for its (future) practical use,” said Anton Hanul, leading specialist of the Marketing Department for the Maksymovych Scientific Library at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

That’s why his library’s Information and Bibliographic Department provides public daily analytical reviews of internet publications of periodicals focused on topics such as Russian aggression, the effects of war on military and civilian infrastructure, and the resistance of Ukrainians.

4. Persevering against the odds

Pendse is amazed by the resilience of his library colleagues in Ukraine.

“Despite the magnitude of the destruction of the information infrastructure, they continue to serve,” he said. “They are my heroes.”

For Brui, the president of the Ukrainian Library Association, the work of librarians is their contribution to the fight for independence.

“Even in the terrible conditions, Ukrainian librarians take care of their collections and provide library services, either remotely or in person,” she said. “But they also serve as refugee relief points and bomb shelters, as well as providing food or medical aid.

“Libraries remain islands — islands of hope and shelter for all who need it,” she said.

The Ukrainian Library Association has created a fund to provide financial assistance to Ukrainian librarians who are struggling during the war. The fund has received more than 120 requests for financial support, and provided assistance to 53 librarians. You can learn more about the fund here.

A special thanks to Olha Aleksic from the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University for moderating this event, as well as Ksenya Kiebuzinski from the University of Toronto, and Andy Spencer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for assisting with logistics.