Decolonisation and Russia’s war against Ukraine

When the Cambridge University Libraries Decolonisation Working Group was set up in September 2020, its members agreed that the group’s terms of reference should include the following: “We recognise that while the primary colonial legacy in Cambridge libraries relates to the British Empire, Cambridge also holds material relating to other colonial powers, past and present, and this is also part of our decolonisation focus.”  The wording came about because I was keen to ensure that non-British colonial legacies should not be overlooked when we hold such extensive collections from all around the world.

The Library of Congress authority name heading for Kyïv, previously listed as Kiev.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a devastating reminder of these other colonial legacies.  Putin has openly compared his “military operation” against Ukraine to Peter I’s wars of expansion (or, more specifically, wars of reclamation, in Putin’s narrative).  In the library context, decolonisation work to address the colonial past and its violent embracing in the present involves many areas of library activities.  This post provides just a few initial suggestions, and I hope that future posts will pick up specific defined and achievable projects that come out of these.

While the focus here is on the UL first and foremost, I am hugely grateful to Slavonic/Russia specialists at the MMLL Faculty Library and Scott Polar Research Institute Library (where the capturing of indigenous voices in Arctic and Siberian Russia is particularly important) for their input as well as those of colleagues here, and I look forward to involving others in thinking these things through further.  All oversimplifications, oversights, and errors are wholly my own.

  • Catalogue metadata
    • A colleague has been working through older records to correct them where the Russian form of Ukrainian cities or corporate bodies has been used as a heading when the Library of Congress form is the Ukrainian version, eg changing Kharʹkov (Ukraine) to Kharkiv (Ukraine)
    • We’ve contacted the providers of catalogue records for big ebook packages over which records we have no proper local control and which contain a substantial number of such errors
    • We must work out a plan for identifying and correcting other mistakes, eg where the book’s language has been wrongly identified as a result of handling over the decades by staff without sufficient language expertise
  • Classification
    • The UL’s in-house classification system is very much a reflection of the time of empires; Ukrainian literature, for example, didn’t have a separate classmark until 2011, having previously been classified into Russian literature
    • We need to agree what needs to be changed and work out how much time the changes would take if done completely (when we brought in the 2011 literature change, we could only implement it for newly catalogued books rather than also for books already in the Russian section) to help decide what we can do in practice now and what we need to plan for
  • Collection promotion
    • We need to make sure that our Ukrainian collections are known about, to local readers (including Ukrainians), international audiences, the general public, and others in the library sector (especially in Ukraine when the time to rebuild comes and new ways of sharing books might be needed if collections there have been damaged or lost; we can learn from practical examples of responses to the terrible Jagger Library fire in Cape Town)
    • We have our weekly Ukraine-focused blog post here, but there’s a lot more we could plan and do: exhibitions, talks, introductory videos, more information on the UL’s website, etc
  •  Collection development
    • It’s hard to see beyond current circumstances, when publishers and vendors are being affected by the war, but we need to think carefully about how best to ensure that our collections capture all significant Ukrainian voices and dissident Russian and Belarusian ones, as well as pro-Putin/Lukashenko ones*
    • Our primary focus is on supporting Ukrainian authors and publishers, requesting a rare roll-over of funds from this year to next in order to be ready to increase orders as soon Ukrainian publishers across the country can return to business
    • We also need to think beyond books and think about developing collections of other material, particularly online material like blog posts that might disappear
  • Working with others
    • Last but by no means least, we need to work with others to understand as best as possible what needs to be done
    • We must engage appropriately with Ukrainian librarians and with Ukrainians in general.  Cambridge has a high number of Ukrainian refugees, and we should engage with the local Ukrainian community with sensitivity (this is, of course, a horribly difficult subject) and with propriety: we must be extremely careful not to stray anywhere near exploitation of people’s time and good will
    • At last week’s COSEELIS conference, where I spoke about all these things, we discussed how librarians might work together as a UK community but also what we might do internationally
    • We also want to involve Cambridge students and academics who study Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus

*(We do buy objectionable and sometimes downright offensive books – a UL purchase should not be taken to imply approval.  In another post, I’ll look at the slow-burn undermining of Ukraine as a nation through extraordinary “popular history” publications printed in vast numbers in Russia over recent years that chip away with very little subtlety at Ukrainian identification as an independent country – samples of which we have often bought for the UL as primary source material about modern Russia itself.)

The amazing Cambridge University Ukrainian Society has, in conjunction with MMLL’s Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, been holding a series of online interviews with prominent academics about the decolonisation of Eastern European Studies, and I was grateful to have the chance to attend last week’s just before the COSEELIS conference.  This was with Professor Norman Davies, whose early career experience of researching and writing about Poland had taught him forcefully that the histories of whole countries can almost be forgotten or made invisible in favour of the narratives of more powerful nations.  He emphasised the importance of education and information time and again.  You can find a recording of the interview and others on CUUS’ Facebook page.  Books by Professor Davies can be seen here in iDiscover.

Mel Bach

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