Archiving Oceania

The University of Hawai‘i’s Pacific Collection has one goal: to build the most comprehensive and inclusive library of Pacific materials in existence
Story by Sara Rose. Photos by Elyse Butler.

The University of Hawai‘i’s Pacific Collection has one goal: to build the most comprehensive and inclusive library of Pacific materials in existence

Walking the stacks on the fifth floor of the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa’s Hamilton Library is a physical journey through Oceania’s written history. With materials dating back to the very first days of contact with the West, the Pacific Collection is an archive of some 120,000 volumes representing at least twenty-four Pacific Island nations. Prior to contact, Pacific Islanders were preliterate, so the special collection necessarily begins with the earliest accounts of Western explorers. Several first editions of Voyage to the Pacific Ocean—which includes Captain James Cook’s account of his search for the fabled “southern continent”—lie in the rare-book vault. John Webber, the official artist aboard HMS Endeavour, documented Cook’s third voyage, sketching plants and peoples; when he returned to London, he brought drawings—including those he made in Hawai‘i—to engravers who helped make Cook’s book one of the most valuable publications in the history of print.

The University of Hawai‘i’s Pacific Collection gathers everything related to the Pacific that it can, so its holdings are eclectic. Here, A journal by writer Zane Grey during a 1928 trip to Tahiti, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century “boy’s literature,” adventure stories set in the Pacific.

Some items in the Pacific Collection straddle the line between book and museum piece. Among its holdings is A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook, to the southern hemisphere…, one of the most sought-after items in the worldwide market for rare Pacific books, easily worth six figures. Compiled in 1787 by Alexander Shaw, the catalog contains swatches of kapa (bark cloth) from various islands that Cook visited. This one is among the sixty-six copies known to exist, with no two copies being exactly alike. “This book has mana,” or spiritual power, says Eleanor Kleiber, co-librarian of the collection, who calls the 231-year-old book her favorite.

The shelves track the onward progress of Pacific occupation and settlement; from the earliest navigators, it moves on to missionaries and whalers, with diaries, Bibles and fishing logs. But these tell only one small part of the story of the Pacific, from the point of view of those who arrived late to the scene. The Pacific Collection strives to become much more: a comprehensive library of the planet’s largest region as experienced both from within and without.

In the fifty years since its inception, the Pacific Collection has become a de facto archive of the Pacific, the only one of its kind in the world, sustained by government funding, supported by a politically stable environment and, significantly, preserved by air conditioning. On the occasion of its anniversary this year, UH’s librarians are reimagining what a “Pacific library” should look like. Curators are taking stock, reflecting on the work done so far and what they have yet to do. The collection on the Mānoa campus is for the scholars and students at UH, but the librarians are working to ensure that it includes and is open to the whole of Oceania. To do that, they must answer difficult and intriguing questions: What will be important to Pacific scholars one hundred years in the future? What might they have overlooked? What remains to be added? What’s already here that might be considered sacred?

The collection has digitized many of its photos and made them freely available online. Seen here, early twentieth century photos of Rapa Nui and an 1895 image of three Tahitian vahine.

The portraits of Janet Bell, R. Renée Heyum and Karen Peacock hang in the Hawaiian and Pacific Collections reading room, garlanded with lei. Bell was curator of the Hawaiian Collection in 1968, when it was decided to separate the broader Pacific materials from the Hawaiian. The following year Bell recruited Heyum from France to be the Pacific Collection’s first curator; Peacock succeeded her in 1987. While both collections are world-class and unparalleled (the Hawaiian Collection turns 110 years old this year), it was decided that curating for a region that spans nearly a third of the globe and that includes roughly half of all extant spoken languages required an omnivorous approach: Collect everything, even if you don’t know what it says. Throw nothing away.

Today the Pacific writes its own stories. If the collection begins with outsiders talking about Islanders, now librarians Stuart Dawrs and Kleiber are making room on the shelves for Oceanic people to tell readers what the world looks like from their point of view. The two regularly travel around Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia—to places like Rapa Nui, Kosrae and Goroka—collecting newspapers, comics, magazines, posters, stickers, romance novels, children’s books, photographs, maps, cookbooks, postcards and more. Some of it is free and some donated, but they buy most of it. “I have stolen phone books,” Dawrs says. “We purchase everything else.” The Yellow Pages might seem antiquated in the digital age, but they have long-term value, says Dawrs: In the Pacific, public documents are vulnerable to military coups, typhoons, tsunamis, bugs and extreme humidity—a hundred years from now, a phone book might be the only record of who lived where, what businesses existed and how governments were organized.

The Pacific Collection shares space on Hamilton Library’s fifth floor with the Hawaiian Collection, which itself turns 110 years old this year. Together these two collections are unparalleled in their documentation of Island life. Above, Waikikī circa 1956.

Not all of the Pacific Collection is in printed form. Much of the curation work now involves securing thumb drives of digital documents from governments, archiving their web pages and converting printed materials into digital forms. The library digitizes print materials in part out of recognition that Hawai‘i is one of the most remote spots on Earth, making the collection hard to access, but also because some of its important users are often also living on tiny dots of land in the middle of a great ocean. Sixteen thousand photo-graphs, including selections from the archives of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, have been digitized. Dawrs currently oversees this work and has made roughly eight thousand images available online. Tedious, maybe, but rewarding, too, says Dawrs, as when he receives e-mail from people depicted in the images them-selves. A previously unidentified photo of a young boy playing in the sand on Satawal, Yap, turned out to be a grandson of Mau Piailug, famous in Hawai‘i for teaching the art of celestial navigation. When Jerry Seweralpiy Joseph saw it online, he wrote,“Holy father of earth, where did you get this pix, this is me when im about 4-5 years old. thank you for this i really like this pix.”

The library digitizes print materials, in part, out of recognition that the collection is hard to access. Hawai‘i is one of the most remote places on Earth, after all. Seen here, Hula dancers on O‘ahu, circa 1956, and Melissa Yaisomal, photographed on Satawal, Yap, in 1984.

Just as technology changes the work of librarians, the meaning of curation itself is evolving over time—those who collect are, in the very act of selecting materials, creating a narrative. So the collection casts a wide net over the Pacific without presuming to know what value future generations might find in the materials it preserves. By way of example, Dawrs refers to a map from 1589, the earliest printed chart of the Pacific, “Maris Pacifici.” It shows an as yet unvisited landmass known only as “Terra Australis.” It is a document so ill-informed and out of scale as to be “totally useless for navigation of the Pacific,” says Dawrs. To a cartographer the map might be considered a waste of paper, but to the social historian, says Dawrs, “it’s a great map of European consciousness.”

The dictum “throw nothing away” doesn’t merely preserve whatever of today’s trash might be considered tomorrow’s treasure; it goes to the heart of what the Pacific Collection aims to do. The history of the Pacific demonstrates how many wrongs can be seen only in retrospect and that some injuries are yet to be felt: The effects of whaling, for instance, were cumulative, noticeable after generations. If early missionaries understood their impact on culture as they sought converts, many believed the changes served a higher good. While a library neither converts nor kills, it does create narratives, and Dawrs and Kleiber are careful not to let their own biases or areas of cultural blindness affect their curation. Both were raised in the Pacific, Dawrs in Hilo and Kleiber in New Caledonia, but they are not native Islanders. In throwing nothing away, they avoid the pitfall of “skewing the narrative by collecting only what we find personally interesting,” says Dawrs.

Famed Satawalese navigator Mau Piailug (second from left) with fellow navigators Basilus, Togomei and Reniuk (left to right) in 1984.

While all of the physical materials in the Pacific Collection legally belong to the library, the librarians believe that some of the information those materials contain is“the property of the culture” from which it comes. It is a heavy kuleana, the Hawaiian word for responsibility. Among the collection’s most valued items are genealogies from the Marshall Islands, collected starting in the 1950s, among them giant, table-size documents with trees of names tracing the family lineages. Though they are now property of the library, Kleiber sought permission from the Marshallese and received instruction on how they should be used. Now that digital access is possible, under what circumstances might they be seen online? This is not merely an academic question: Conflicts over land rights are an ongoing challenge in the post-colonial Pacific. What if the genealogies were to be construed as legal documents in court today? With a faculty member at the College of the Marshall Islands serving as intermediary, the Council of High Chiefs was asked to rule on how the documents may be reproduced and disseminated.

Curators Eleanor Kleiber and Stuart Dawrs examine a rare 1784 edition of Captain James Cook’s Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Both travel throughout Oceania collecting whatever they can, even if they can’t read it. This approach says Dawrs, ensures that the curators aren’t “skewing the narrative by collecting only what we find personally interesting.”

Such painstaking care has become a hallmark of today’s Pacific Collection, a job that is eternally incomplete: Among the material on the modern renaissance of Pacific voyaging are audio recordings made in Satawal by author and documentarian Steve Thomas, who hopes to see them made available online. The librarians asked Mau Piailug’s nephew, who now lives in Hawai‘i, to listen to the recordings and provide advice regarding potentially sensitive information. He responded that he was only a teenager when the recordings were made, uninitiated as a navigator and therefore told by his elders to leave the room. That was more than thirty years ago. He can’t yet listen to the recordings, he says, because he has yet to be invited back in. “So we’ll just have to wait,” says Dawrs.

“We’re in an era of examining our colonial past,” says Kleiber. “How can we change that story?” What should a Pacific Collection of tomorrow look like? Ideally, she says, it would be curated by Oceanic people themselves, with other topics relegated to small corners on far floors. “We wouldn’t be the special collection,” says Kleiber. “We’d be the library.” HH