Story by Julia Steele
Photo by Jyoti Mau
My page, I now know, contains 4,965 words—4,896 of them legible, sixty-nine of them not. These words first appeared shoulder to shoulder in Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1878, gathered together on page four of Ka Nupepa Kuokoa. At that point Hawai‘i was an independent kingdom with one of the most literate citizenries on Earth and a vibrant publishing scene. Hawaiian-language newspapers were flying off the presses, and people were scooping them up to devour their words.
Then things changed. The Hawaiian language was nearly swept away in a massive wave of social, economic and political change. My page, along with thousands of others like it, was all but forgotten—stuck on a microfilm roll in a back room, a celluloid image at risk for spontaneous combustion from the very chemicals designed to preserve it.
A century later things changed again. The language, bolstered by a tiny but passionate group of teachers, came back. The newspapers were rediscovered. Their pages were pulled off microfilm and—using the technology of the day—turned into jpegs. Suddenly there were digital images of seventy-five thousand individual pages of Hawaiian-language newspapers—a priceless storehouse of information spanning a period from 1834 to 1948. Each page was a picture worth several thousand words—if only those words were more than just visual bitmaps. Work began to transcribe the pages so their words could become part of a vast, searchable database. But after a decade of experiments with optical character recognition software and endless proposals for funding, only fifteen thousand pages—20 percent—had been completed.
That’s when Puakea Nogelmeier had his epiphany. Why not turn the pages over to the people? Let a million flowers bloom, let a million fingers type. Puakea, a member of that tiny but passionate group of teachers, speaks fluent Hawaiian and has been at the forefront of reviving interest in the newspapers. He looked at a society where people let their fingers do not just the walking but the talking, and he saw a sea of potential transcribers. Yes, the pages were in Hawaiian, but that didn’t mean, Puakea realized, that the transcribers needed to speak Hawaiian—they just needed to be able to type the letters of the Roman alphabet (and not even all of them!). And so, on Nov. 28 of last year—the date that marks the Hawaiian kingdom’s independence day—he and collaborator Kau‘i Sai-Dudoit launched ‘Ike Ku‘okoa, Liberating Knowledge, an all-volunteer effort to transcribe sixty thousand pages of Hawaiian-language newspapers. Their ambitious goal is to finish by July 31, 2012, the date that marks the kingdom’s Restoration Day. The project is designed for anyone and everyone who has access to a computer —and Puakea and Kau‘i do mean everyone. “E komo mai” is the message: Welcome. “Hele mai”: Come on in.
When I meet Puakea, it is thirty-five days after the launch, and volunteers from across the globe have already transcribed more than a thousand pages. It’s a fantastic accomplishment, but “we are already behind schedule!” rues Puakea. Ever optimistic, he is confident many more people will join when they learn about the project. Sitting in his kitchen we download a page for me to do. Puakea gives it a quick scan and pronounces it a “very churchy page.” It also has two columns of ads, many of which feature the word “PALA!” in big letters. “What does that mean?” I ask, wondering what the most promoted item was in 1878. “Lumber,” Puakea says. Then he sends me home to work, with a fridge magnet that reads, “He Kiko Hua Au!” I Am A Transcriber!
Once home I open my page and begin. It is daunting, no question, for the pages are incredibly dense. But it is never tedious. I learn many words as I go. Some I figure out (type “ekalesia” often enough and you realize it means church). Others I look up, struck by their lyricism: heluhelu, to read; makamaka, a friend; mana‘oi‘o, faith. Beyond the words, I’m pulled into the time. I type the names of pastors across O‘ahu (S. Waiwaiole in Waimanalo, J. Paikuli in Waikane, J. Kekahuna in Kahuku) and wonder about their lives in the kingdom.
When I am finished, I post my transcription and throw the now-liberated words back into the wellspring of Hawaiian knowledge. Next week I will begin another page. I feel lucky to play a small role in this powerful work— a role that anyone, including you, can play. Just go to www.awaiaulu.org, sign up and start typing.