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Ukraine's libraries are offering bomb shelters, camouflage classes and, yes, books

Children and their families have taken refuge in bomb shelters like this one at the Central City Library for Children in Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine.
Taisia Belibova
Children and their families have taken refuge in bomb shelters like this one at the Central City Library for Children in Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine.

Libraries are playing vital roles in supporting Ukraine's war effort from giving families shelters during Russian bombing raids to making camouflage nets for the military and countering disinformation.

"It's really scary when schools, libraries, universities, hospitals, maternity hospitals, residential neighborhoods are bombed," Oksana Brui, who is the president of the Ukrainian Library Association, told NPR.

Citing civilian deaths and the Russian military's drive to take over nuclear power plants, Brui added, "This is very dangerous for the whole world."

Libraries hurled themselves into supporting Ukraine in its fight

Brui is among the Ukrainians who were taken by surprise when sirens rang out on Feb. 24 announcing Russia's invasion. While some of Ukraine's libraries have been destroyed by the fighting, she says that all over the country, libraries are "buzzing like hives," full of librarians, readers, refugees and volunteers.

"Refugee reception points, hostels and logistics points are organized here," she said. "Camouflage nets for the military are also woven here. Home care courses are held here. Books are collected here to be transferred to libraries in neighboring countries that receive Ukrainian refugees."

One bundle of netting was packaged with a note: "Death to enemies."

With their country thrust into war, libraries are also bringing in specialists to provide psychological help to residents struggling to cope with an unwelcome new reality.

"There are bomb shelters in libraries," Brui added, pointing out a children's library in Mykolaiv where kids, their families and a few dogs were being kept safe. As a video posted by the library shows, children are using their time in the shelter to select books, filling the hours before they can emerge again.

The librarians' defiant message went viral

Brui and the Ukrainian Library Association received hundreds of positive and encouraging messages after the group issued a notice postponing — not canceling — an international conference it was slated to host in early March. The confident tone struck Nicholas Poole, the CEO of CILIP, the U.K.'s library and information association.

In a tweet that drew more than 200,000 likes, Poole said of the notice, "it basically says 'We will reschedule just as soon as we have finished vanquishing our invaders.' Ukrainian Librarians, I salute you."

Brui, who is the library director of the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, and the ULA also wrote to the International Federation of Library Associations, academic publishers and other institutions, asking them to exclude the Russia Library Association from all activities, citing the need to stand in the face of aggression and embrace values based on truth and the sharing of information.

Their request won the support of many peer organizations across Europe. In response, the IFLA issued a statement expressing "solidarity with our colleagues in Ukraine" and condemning "all violent actions," but it did not mention Russia or take any sort of action against the RLA.

A new kind of silence has settled over some libraries

Libraries are famous for their quiet and calm. But in some parts of Ukraine, Brui says, libraries are now marked not by the usual hush but by "dead silence."

"These are the libraries destroyed by the Russian bombing in Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, [Starobilsk], Severodonetsk," she said, singling out damage suffered by the Karazin University Library in Kharkiv, the famed university city.

A volunteer makes camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military at a library in Lviv, in western Ukraine.
Yuriy Dyachyshyn / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A volunteer makes camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military at a library in Lviv, in western Ukraine.

Even in peacetime, Ukraine's libraries try to counteract the influence of disinformation, training people in media and information literacy. But this is war, and everything about life in Ukraine is now different. The country's librarians are hard at work trying to keep their collections safe — and making sure people can access books and other materials.

"Today Ukraine is fighting not only for its own independence and the future of its children," Brui said.

She stressed that Ukrainians are fighting — and dying — for European values. She urged everyone to support Ukraine, to establish a no-fly zone, and unite to stop the war started by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Today it is destroying Ukraine, and tomorrow it could be any other country," Brui said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.