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Bringing Ukrainian books to the library (Part 1)

At the start of the war in Ukraine, we were interested in books available about Ukraine from our libraries. We wrote about poets and poems from Ukraine, as well as what war poetry is good for. We have been following what our Ukrainian colleagues were doing both to preserve Ukrainian culture and to provide the American public with a glimpse into Ukrainian culture.

The Ukrainian National Women’s League of America (UNWLA) was our guest at Rutgers in the Fall 2023 semester to advocate and educate the public about Ukraine then and now. Curated by UNWLA, the Holodomor Exhibit was viewed by hundreds of students in Douglass Library, both in the Rotunda and in the Mabel Smith Douglass Room from November 10 through December 2023. A movie screening of Mr. Jones, based on the story of the first journalist’s struggles to report on the Holodomor, and a talk by Victor Rud, JD, also commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, the Great Ukrainian famine in the 1930s. We have been in touch with the extraordinary women from UNWLA ever since.

Books We Read is delighted to continue with our Ukrainian series. We are pleased to share any new resources in addition to the UNLWA Toolkit for anyone who wishes to advocate purchasing books for their local library. As someone who used to purchase foreign language books for Rutgers University Libraries, I can attest to the difficulties of ordering non-English titles. For Ukrainian Communities, they offer a fantastic website called Resources for Supporting Ukrainian Language Communities created at Washington State University. They also maintain a list of Ukrainian Language Books spreadsheet.

The responses to the interview have been prepared by

  • Anna Petelina, Culture and Education Chair, UNWLA branch 143
  • Christina Pikhmanets, UNWLA Regional Chair of Education in New Jersey
Cover art

The Holodomor Exhibit was brought to the Douglass Library by UNLWA in Fall 2023. Click on the image to view the gallery.

BWR: In your email, you told us that the Ukrainian Women’s League had noticed a growing interest among people on Facebook seeking book recommendations related to Ukraine. Your new initiative, Bring Ukrainian Books to the Library, inspired us to ask you about the latest news and plans. As librarians, we are most interested in your reading lists and how we can help promote them. Please tell us about how the UNWLA’s initiative to create lists and bibliographies started.

UNLWA: The initiative to compile lists and bibliographies of Ukrainian books emerged from a noticeable trend on Facebook, where people increasingly sought recommendations related to Ukraine. Recognizing the need to address this interest and increase Ukrainian literature’s visibility, the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America (UNWLA) embarked on this new project. Our aim is to promote ancient and authentic Ukrainian literature in the English-speaking world. Many Americans are unaware of Russia’s century-long suppression of the Ukrainian language, history, culture, and people leading to misconceptions about the availability and significance of Ukrainian literature. Through curated reading lists and bibliographies, we strive to introduce plentiful Ukrainian literature to American readers by showing them the wealth of Ukrainian literary talent.

For instance, consider the astonishing cultural period known as the “Executed Renaissance” of the 1920s to early 1930s, during which gifted representatives of the Ukrainian creative and artistic elite were brutally executed under Stalin’s regime because they helped to revive Ukrainian culture and content. Authors such as Mykola Khvylovyi (Ukrainian modernist), Mykola Zerov (Ukrainian poet), Valerian Pidmohylnyi (Ukrainian urban novelist), Mykhail Semenko (a promoter of Ukrainian futurism), Veronika Chernyakhivska (Ukrainian poet and translator), Bohdan Ihor Antonych (Ukrainian avant-garde poet), Maik Yohansen (Ukrainian poet and the author of the first Ukrainian bestseller) and others whose contributions to the development of the authentic Ukrainian culture and traditions have been forcefully marginalized, deserve greater recognition globally.

Furthermore, contemporary figures like Victoria Amelina, a Ukrainian writer mortally wounded by Russian shelling at the end of June of 2023, underscore the ongoing challenges faced by Ukrainian authors. Victoria Amelina helped find the diary of the Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vakulenko-K., who was shot by the Russian occupying forces and who buried his diary in the garden, in 2022. In her foreword to Volodymyr’s now-published diary, she recalls the moment of looking for the diary and fearing that she is “inside the new Executed Renaissance”. Ukrainian artists and writers, in particular, form a powerful cultural movement, serving as symbols of resilience within their cultural landscape, that’s why they are being exterminated and so are their works. She wrote this mere weeks before her own death, also from Russian weapons. Amelina’s courageous efforts exemplify the strength of Ukrainian literary heritage amidst struggle.

Our initiative not only empowers English-speaking audiences to explore Ukrainian culture and history but also challenges the dominant narrative maintaining the myth of “great Russia” at Ukraine’s expense. Libraries are integral partners in this effort, serving as channels to diverse literary landscapes and facilitating the discovery of lesser-known voices.

Essentially, we utilize books as powerful intellectual means in fostering greater cross-cultural understanding in the English-speaking world.

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BWR: What is the main goal of these reading lists?

UNLWA: This initiative encompasses several key objectives. First, it aims to provide English-speaking readers with a nuanced understanding of Ukrainian culture. Through our book collections, readers have the opportunity to explore a wide range of Ukrainian stories and perspectives. By introducing these curated collections in public libraries, our goal is to enhance readers’ awareness and understanding of Ukraine’s abundant and versatile cultural heritage, traditions, and mentality. We also seek to enrich cultural diversity and foster a deeper appreciation for Ukraine’s literary legacy.

Moreover, this initiative sheds light on the depth of diversity and complexity within Ukraine. Ukrainian classical and contemporary literature has long dealt with the themes and issues prevalent in today’s Ukrainian society, offering valuable insights into its history, identity, and ongoing challenges.

Additionally, the initiative aims to engage various educational stakeholders, including publishers, cultural managers, librarians, students, professors, researchers, and historians, in the utilization, publication, reprinting, and integration of Ukrainian literature into educational curricula. By promoting the inclusion of Ukrainian books in educational programs, we aim to cultivate broader knowledge and comprehension of Ukrainian culture and history among future generations.

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BWR: What do you think you have achieved so far?

UNLWA: Thus far, I have personally engaged with the Secaucus Library in New Jersey, where the curated list has been featured within their collections. Moreover, we have successfully established a partnership with the library to procure Ukrainian books from a US-based Ukrainian bookstore ReadUA. The intention behind this collaboration is to open dedicated Ukrainian bookshelves within the library premises, catering specifically to the local Ukrainian community. Additionally, arrangements have been made for the library to procure Ukrainian titles translated into English through their book vendors.

Through my connections at UNWLA, efforts have been extended to engage with three other libraries in New Jersey: JFK Library in Piscataway, Edison Main Library in Edison, and Old Bridge Library in Old Bridge. Correspondence with the head librarians of these institutions has resulted in their agreement to display informational sheets highlighting contemporary Ukrainian literature. This initiative aims to provide individuals with the opportunity to explore the diverse voices of Ukrainian authors. Each of the librarians has consented to participate in this endeavor.

Furthermore, outreach has been made to the New Jersey State Library, where the bibliographies have been shared for wider dissemination. Collaboration with the Youth Services Specialist, who advises public and school library staff working with youth, has been particularly fruitful. In response to previous inquiries regarding book recommendations about Ukraine and literature written in Ukrainian for young readers, she has committed to sharing the curated resources with youth services library staff across the state through the discussion list maintained by the NJ State Library.

These collective efforts point out to our commitment to promoting Ukrainian literature and culture within library settings, facilitating broader access to diverse literary voices across communities in New Jersey.

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BWR: What are some areas where you would like to improve to reach broader audiences?

UNLWA: PR and communication are areas where we could use assistance and advocacy to reach broader audiences more effectively. For instance, while platforms like the NJ State Library serve as valuable hubs for information dissemination, each library’s community is unique, presenting challenges in reaching a wide audience through centralized channels alone.

To address this, we need to explore strategies for enhancing our PR and communication efforts. This could involve collaborating with local media outlets to get press coverage and increase visibility for Ukrainian literature and cultural initiatives. Additionally, organizing literary and cultural events presents an opportunity to engage Americans and our community with Ukrainian literature in meaningful ways.

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BWR: As authors of various reading guides and book reviews, we are always asked whether we have read all the books we recommend. How do you select the books to be added? Or, in the world of libraries, what are your selection criteria?

UNLWA: We make several considerations to ensure we offer a diverse and meaningful range of books to our readers. We begin by examining what’s already available, taking into account popular titles, those with high reviews and recommendations from esteemed sources like the Ukrainian Book Institute (a state institution under the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine designed to shape state policy in the book industry) catalogs, which cover both topical children’s and adult literature.

Additionally, we do research to identify books that align with the interests and preferences of our readership. This includes a variety of genres such as non-fiction, children’s literature, poetry, fantasy, and others. We also prioritize works that explore contemporary themes, including ancient Ukrainian feminist traditions and gender equality, alongside historical texts.

While our current selection may reflect the context of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war and Ukraine’s historical struggles, these books offer valuable insights into our country’s complex narrative, often overlooked by many foreigners. They shed light on Russia’s brutal suppression of the Ukrainian language and culture, topics that deserve attention and discussion. These works serve to challenge stereotypes about Ukraine and provide a gateway to understanding Ukrainian identity.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Selected references

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