The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted a spike in interest in the history and culture of those nations and the broader region. As Duke’s Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies, Ernest (“Erik”) Zitser helps students and scholars navigate the university’s vast holdings as well as various other resources.
Born in Ukraine in the former Soviet Union, Dr. Zitser has a Ph.D. in Russian History from Columbia University and has worked extensively in the field. He recently spoke with Duke Today about how the Duke community can learn more about the historical context surrounding the ongoing war.
“The first thing I recommend is turning off the TV and logging off Facebook and Twitter. Instead, attend a live seminar (such as the series of talks – like this one -- organized by Duke's Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies) or the upcoming documentary movie screening and Q&A with a Ukrainian director,” Zitser said.
Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q: You recently wrote a blog post about the breadth of resources on Ukraine that Duke has for its community. Have you seen a surge in interest in these materials?
ZITSER: I have not had a chance to run circulation reports on all the resources that I mentioned in my blog post, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there is, indeed, much greater interest in materials about Ukraine than before the Russian invasion. For example, even a quick glance at the Duke University Libraries' online catalog shows that Serhii Plokhy's Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine and Anne Applebaum's Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine -- the only two books on Ukrainian history to have made an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list -- are both checked out.
This is not just a Duke thing, either. My colleagues at the main branch of the Durham County Library report that books about Ukraine were checked out so quickly that they currently do not have enough materials to stage a public book display on the topic. Clearly, there is a tremendous demand for reliable information about what is happening, and expert analysis of why it's happening, which cannot be filled by social media and the kinds of things people tend to find online.
Indeed, the very fact that there is so much material on Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and that much of it is so unreliable, if not downright false, is precisely the reason why research universities like Duke employ professional subject librarians like myself. It is our job, in coordination with faculty, researchers, and students, to build and curate the best possible collections of research materials. This way, instead of drinking from a firehose of information, our patrons can sip from the fountain of knowledge -- an old metaphor for the process of enlightenment, but one that applies more than ever.
Q: How might these materials be helpful to people with only a peripheral understanding of the country, region and conflict?
ZITSER: Whether one is a seasoned researcher or someone with a peripheral understanding of the country, region, and conflict, the collections at Duke University Libraries have got you covered. For example, in my guide to resources on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I offered some suggestions for how our users can find not only reliable news coverage, but also books and movies on the topic.
Since many students are visual learners and often begin their research on YouTube rather than Google, documentary films (such as the ones that are available thanks to the library's subscription to online streaming video platforms) are a particularly useful starting point for learning about the events that led up to the current situation (for example, Nine Month War or Daily watch. Life on the frontline of Ukraine's war). Best of all, these resources have already been vetted, purchased, and cataloged by library staff, and are all available from the library's online catalog, which is the main portal to all of resources in all formats (analog, digital, archival).
I always tell students to never pay for anything they find online in a Google search because Duke University Libraries already own it or else can easily get it either through purchase or interlibrary loan. You've already paid for this with your tuition, you don't need to pay for it again.
I also encourage patrons to remember that library resources include not only such things as books, journals, and databases, but also human resources, like professional librarians and archivists with subject expertise. In the case of materials on international topics or specific regions of the world, I tell folks to contact my colleagues in the library's International & Area Studies Department. Like myself, these professional librarians are recognized specialists on each of the world's regions and can connect researchers to materials in both English and vernacular languages that they are unlikely to find on their own.
Q: A last interesting tidbit: Is it true that the creation of the term ‘genocide’ has a link to Duke?
ZITSER: Yes, this fundamental concept of international human rights law was coined by Raphael Lemkin -- an Eastern European refugee and legal scholar -- during his brief sojourn at Duke in 1941-42, in part, thanks to our library's collection of laws about Nazi Germany's occupation of Europe. As I wrote in an IAS blog post last year, Lemkin's example demonstrates the important role that Duke library's commitment to collecting for global diversity can play in making a real life difference-- not only in fostering better scholarship, but also in changing the world for the better.