“Culture defines a nation”: Head of National Library on urgency to preserve Ukrainian cultural artefacts

The National Library of the Czech Republic is currently working on getting a project off the ground that will provide mobile units that would be sent to Ukraine to help preserve cultural artefacts endangered by the war. The head of the National Library Tomáš Foltýn, told me more about the endeavour.

Tomáš Foltýn | Photo: Eva Hodíková,  Czech National Library

“We started this project around 2016/2017 when we were creating and updating our strategy for the Czech National Library. An integral part in this strategy concerned the long term preservation of our physical collection. One of the parts of the strategy was also the creation of a mobile unit aimed at conserving and restoring our physical collections.

“The war in Ukraine is ongoing, and we were starting to think about how we could help the cultural institutions of the country. We were talking with the Czech Ministry of Culture about different ideas, and we thought about creating an ‘arc’, a unit where we can restore and conserve the physical collections, or a unit aimed at digitizing the masterpieces of Ukrainian libraries. The Czech Ministry of Culture ended up loving the idea.”

It’s quite a biblical reference calling it an arc, almost like Noah’s Arc where everything was put on a ship before the big flood. Is it a similar premise going on with this project in its mission to preserve Ukrainian cultural artefacts?

“Partly, yes. The mobile units will be able to move to a location where they are needed, like when a physical collection is endangered by the war in Ukraine. The moveable units make sense because it is easier to send the unit directly to the place.”

There are two units that you want to send, correct?

“Yes, we are thinking of two mobile units. The first is the mobile unit aimed at the conservation and restoration of library collections. It’s about protection, conservation processes, and preparation for the next level of restoration processes – so more about the physical collections and their treatment.

“On the other hand, we want to build a second unit called ‘Arc Number Two’. This one is about digitization. So when we have nice collections that are important for Ukrainian history, education, and research – it is always better to digitize them, because then the preservation of these documents is easier.”

You said there are a lot of specialists involved in this project. I can imagine there are a lot of individuals who are skilled in handling the physical objects that will be extracted. Can you tell me about that?

“Yes, of course. We have a special division at the Czech National Library that is responsible for the long term preservation of physical content. The director of this division is highly skilled and has worked in the past with the Getty Foundation in the US, so she knows a lot about protecting physical culture for future generations.

“We can also provide some training, online or physical workshops and so on for Ukrainian librarians. It’s not only about the units going to Ukraine, it’s about long term cooperation. Education, lessons learned, and a knowledge exchange. The context of this project is broader than anyone can imagine.”

In terms of the timeline of this project – I know the first trip hasn’t happened just yet, but is this something that you plan to continue until the full scale invasion of Ukraine has stopped?

“We’re always thinking in the long-term context. These units will be sent to Ukraine as a gift, but they will be sent back to Czechia when they are not needed in Ukraine anymore. Our vision after the war is to use the units in Czechia for educational purposes, but also for other emergencies in the country. There can be floods for example – and other accidents in various cultural institutions. We will have these units and be able to use them when something happens in Czechia or somewhere else in Europe – so that’s the long term vision of these units.”

Czechia has been supporting Ukraine since the first day of the full-scale invasion through humanitarian aid and post-war reconstruction. Some might not think of culture as something that needs to have funding poured into it. So why do you think this is an important project that the public should support?

“The answer is very simple. Culture defines a nation, and when culture is living and people are able to take care of their cultural heritage, it makes the nation stronger. It’s not only about Ukraine, it’s about Czechia, Canada, and all countries in Europe and the world. Only the nations that are able to preserve their culture for the future generations are strong countries, and that’s the mission of these units.”

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