NSU Professor Dr. Dennette McDermott scrambles to preserve Ukraine’s culture

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Nathan Wilson | Reporter
As life in Ukraine was upended by Russian aggression, international volunteers organized the Saving Ukranian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) initiative to protect digital copies of the nation’s cultural heritage.
Dr. Dennette McDermott, a professor of flute at Northwestern State University became involved in SUCHO after learning about it from Repertoire International des Sources Musicales (RISM) which maintains a database of musical manuscripts in libraries around the world for researchers interested in studying their collections.
More than 1,300 volunteers like McDermott are working to identify and preserve everything from detailed descriptions of library holdings to scanned PDFs. Their membership ranges from self-taught manuscript researchers like McDermott to professional librarians and software developers, but their unifying goal is to maintain access to digital collections in the event the libraries and their and collections are lost. Working across international boundaries, they collaborate through the Slack app to coordinate the expertise of members who translate directories, search sites and archive collections.

This article published in the April 9, 2022, print edition

McDermott described the process of preserving digital artifacts. “We copy the URL for the page, and if possible download PDFs. We then paste (the links) into Google Sheets,” she said. The final steps of the process involve storing copies of the site itself using a web-crawler. The site and its files are uploaded to the Internet Archive, a digital library that has amassed a collection ranging from millions of images and audio recordings to thousands of software applications since 1996. The Internet Archive is publically available, so the information it stores remains available to everyone.

As a musician, McDermott focused on preserving music dating back hundreds of years. Along with ancient religious hymns she has helped maintain works by 18th century composer Johannes Christian Bach. She described the scope of her work. “Not all the music I was trying to rescue was Ukrainian,” she said. “Sometimes another copy exists in another country, but each copy is unique and valuable.”
The urgency of McDermott’s efforts became evident as she worked. “Library links were becoming broken and no longer working as I was working on the site,” she said. She described the stakes involved in preserving Ukraine’s history. “War is tragic. There is the loss of human life, but when their culture is lost too, well that is another tragedy.”