|Story and photo by Stu Dawrs
It’s a hot day in Saipan in 2007, and Karen Peacock is looking out to sea from the Banzai Cliffs. She is dwarfed by the memorials to the hundreds of Japanese civilians who jumped to their deaths here at the close of WWII. Officially we’re working, buying materials for the Pacific Collection at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa’s Hamilton Library. Unofficially it’s a farewell tour, as Karen plans to soon retire.
We’d been island-hopping for three weeks—Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam and now here—gathering everything we could: government documents, news-papers and magazines, vernacular Bibles, audio cassettes, DVDs. Earlier that day while visiting a mom-and-pop store where Karen had spent countless childhood afternoons, the owner gave her a bound copy of his genealogy—a one-of-a-kind document that someday, for the right person, will be a historical treasure.
People are often surprised when I tell them that anti-malaria pills and a passport are the tools of my profession as a librarian, or that in the last four years my work has taken me to Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. While I assure them that it is indeed work, I realize it’s also a charmed existence. I owe it almost entirely to Dr. Karen Peacock, who for the last seven years was my instructor, mentor and, later, colleague.
You’ve probably never heard of Karen, but she was world-famous. She was one of three people—along with Lynette Furuhashi and Renée Heyum—who built the Pacific Collection into one of the world’s premier research libraries. It aims to preserve the entire historical record of the Pacific—every subject, every format, every language—starting when European voyagers first entered the region and wrote what they saw. It is literally priceless, and as curator Karen was its face.
Born in 1948 in Indiana, Karen was raised in Micronesia—Palau, Pohnpei and Saipan. Her father, Daniel J. Peacock, served as director of library services for the US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, a vast swath encompassing the whole of postwar Micronesia. Karen always maintained strong ties to the region, but virtually all of her professional and academic life played out in Honolulu. Her career with the UH library spanned more than thirty years, nearly all of it in the Pacific Collection where she served as a Pacific specialist librarian and since 1987 as curator.
It’s impossible to quantify Karen’s contribution to the library or to Pacific Studies in general. On the one hand, she undertook such high-visibility projects as surveying some 50,000 photographs in the collection, which yielded the online Trust Territory Photo Archives, a collection of 8,000-plus digital images now freely available on the Internet. But it was the hidden, day-to-day work of gathering under one roof everything from a 1773 account of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s voyage around the world to the latest Tonga phone book that made the collection what it is today.
Perhaps Karen’s greatest legacy lies with the literally hundreds of Pacific Island students she helped negotiate life far from home, not just aiding their research but serving as mentor and default auntie, making late-night airport runs and the occasional check-up phone call. Today many of these former students are the politicians, university presidents, researchers and entrepreneurs who have risen to prominence as various Pacific Island nations emerged from colonial rule. Particularly in Micronesia, there are few places you can go where someone doesn’t know the Peacock family name.
Karen passed away on August 13, 2010, after a ten-month battle with cancer. By coincidence I’d been looking that day at a photo taken three years earlier on her farewell tour. She’s standing at the Banzai Cliffs, looking out toward the horizon where the Pacific becomes the Philippine Sea. I suspect at that moment she was contemplating where she’d been, not just on this trip, but all of it.
In her office she had a sign: “Every day in some way I will make my island better.” If you think about the Pacific Islands as one land mass united by a great body of water, you’ll understand when I say that in this she was a great success.