Jurij Dobczansky: Working with Libraries in Ukraine During War

Photo courtesy of Jurij Dobczansky.

Jurij Dobczansky is a senior cataloging specialist in the East Central Europe Section of the Germanic and Slavic Division. 

Tell us about your background.

Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, I spoke Ukrainian at home until I went to kindergarten. My parents were World War II refugees from Ukraine. After regular school hours, I attended a community-run Ukrainian school for 10 years. There, I learned about my cultural heritage by reading and writing in the Ukrainian language.

In 1975, I earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative European literature from the College of the Holy Cross. Soon after graduation, I came to Washington, D.C., to work as a volunteer for a committee in defense of human rights.

What brought you to the Library, and what do you do?

In December of that year, I accepted a temporary appointment to the Theodore Roosevelt film project in the Prints and Photographs Division. My supervisor encouraged me to pursue library studies while working full time. A permanent position compiling the annual “American Bibliography of Slavic and East European Studies” offered me a chance to develop new skills while I attended evening classes.

I earned a master’s degree in library science from the Catholic University of America in 1981. In 1983, I began my cataloging career as a Slavic subject cataloger in the Social Sciences Section. Continuing to work with the languages and cultures I was familiar with, I joined the Central and East European Languages team. It has been an ongoing educational journey. I presently work with Ukrainian and Polish resources in a wide variety of subjects.

How has the war in Ukraine affected Library collecting?

The war effectively cut off our contacts with several of the Library’s exchange partners. Our commercial vendor suspended shipping in April but was able to resume in June. Remarkably, the Ukrainian postal service continued to function. In fiscal 2022, our section received over 1,700 items from Ukraine.

The senseless and unprovoked war against Ukraine began in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea and the invasion of its Donbas region. Then, as everyone knows, Russia launched a full-scale invasion on February 24 of this year.

The war has affected me personally and professionally. Over the years, I have worked methodically to develop accurate subject and descriptive access to Ukrainian resources. It pains me to see the wholesale destruction of Ukraine’s cultural institutions and heritage; places for which I established name authority records are disappearing.

Besides military targets, Russia has destroyed libraries, archives, museums, hospitals, schools and civilian housing. Yet amid the bombing, annual book festivals continued in Kyiv and Lviv. A large contingent of Ukrainian publishers participated in the Frankfurt Book Fair.

As the ongoing documentation of Russian atrocities and war crimes proceeds, we at the Library must likewise continue to collect and preserve manifestations of Ukraine’s cultural heritage. After the war, I hope the Library will assist in rebuilding and restoring Ukrainian libraries.

What projects are you most proud of?

Especially gratifying to me are special assignments, details to other divisions and translation projects. From 1994 to 1996, I felt privileged to participate in the Congressional Research Service’s parliamentary assistance program in Ukraine, which included three trips to Ukraine.

As a docent, I have enjoyed leading tours of the Jefferson Building for members of the Embassy of Ukraine and delegations from Ukraine, including those of Ukrainian first ladies Lyudmyla Kuchma and Maryna Poroshenko.

Occasionally, I have come across items in the collection, which turn out to be rare. Especially rewarding was processing collections of Ukrainian ephemera related to the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan Protests of 2013 and 2014.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?

My favorite activities at home are gardening and landscaping. For over three decades, I have taught the art of pysanky — Ukrainian Easter eggs — at an annual workshop. For many years, I also enjoyed singing as a member of the Library of Congress Chorale. My wife and I sing in our church choir and in a local Ukrainian a cappella group.

What is something your co-workers may not know about you?

On Sept. 18–20, 2015, I organized the fifth meeting of the Ukrainian Heritage Consortium of North America, an informal network of Ukrainian American museums, libraries and archives. The meeting included an all-day program at the Library. I am ever grateful to several Library staff members for their valuable assistance and presentations. Since 2012, I have also chaired the Archives and Library Committee of the Shevchenko Scientific Society, a scholarly organization of Ukrainian specialists based in New York City.

Jurij Dobczansky is a senior cataloging specialist in the East Central Europe Section of the Germanic and Slavic Division.

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