Story by Alice Swann
Photos by Olivier Koning
Patrick McNally prefers that you think of him not as a “professional shusher”—as, he laments, librarians are far too likely to be labeled—but instead as a “facilitator of access to the universe of dynamite stuff.” McNally is the head of the Hawai‘i & Pacific Section at the Hawai‘i State Library, and as such he oversees a vast array of that stuff. Want to know who exactly lived in Queen Lili‘uokalani’s house in 1910? How to cook Turtle Moovian? What inspired the famed Charles Dickey roofline? How tall a lonomea tree is likely to get? What the now-extinct mamo bird looked like? McNally’s got the answers to all of these questions—and thousands of others.
On the day we meet he’s pulled out a selection of material to illustrate the range that the collection contains: biography, place-based books, culture-based books, cookbooks, how-to books, files of news clippings, maps. Much of the material hails from the pre-electronic era, from the days before the Internet compeletely revolutionized access to information. In the old days, for example, you didn’t Google “haupia” if you wanted a recipe for the Hawaiian treat—instead you asked a friend or headed to the library, where in the Kalahikiola Cookbook Centennial Anniversary Recipes 1855-1955, published by the Kalahikiola Congregational Church in Kohala, you would have found just what you were looking for (as well as, by the way, that recipe for Turtle Moovian).
This year the Hawai‘i State Library turns one hundred. On any given day, people stream in and out of the simple, elegant building, which sits in a grand spot in downtown Honolulu between ‘Iolani Palace and City Hall, fronted by huge monkeypod trees growing on a wide lawn. The library is home to numerous departments—among them Language, Literature & History; Social Science & Philosophy; and the Edna Allyn Room for Children—and the Hawai‘i & Pacific Section is one of the most popular. It is housed in a large, airy, light-filed room with tables to read at, open stacks to browse and reference staff at the ready, including McNally, who has worked in the department for twenty years. His sonorous voice lends him an instant air of credibility—not that he needs the boost, for his prowess as a librarian is clear even without the baritone.
McNally talks of the materials he cares for with an endless “Isn’t this cool?” fascination. When patrons come in to research their geneaology—which happens often—McNally or his staff will pull out census records and whatever other supporting materials can offer clues. As an example of the latter, he shows me a fascinating volume from 1930 titled Portuguese Hawaiian Memories. It is a compendium of hundreds of Portuguese families in Hawai‘i, organized by island and with pictures of virtually every family represented. Another captivating book is a kind of Hawaiian Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1989 by Wai‘anae’s ‘Opelu Project. Titled From Then to Now: A Manual for Doing Things Hawaiian Style, it has wonderful line drawings and instruction on planting numerous native plants, including ki. McNally used the book’s advice to plant ki in the library’s open-air courtyard, which sits just adjacent to the Hawai‘i & Pacific collection. The advice worked perfectly: The ki are flourishing in the courtyard, alongside ferns, bromeliads, crotons and native loulu palms.