Books in the ice box
Image: Photo courtesy of Sandy Ilaoa

UH professor helps stabilize historic documents following tsunami

Samoa / In the wake of any massive disaster, after the death toll is tallied and emergency shelter found for the newly homeless, the affected community begins to measure what else has been lost. There is infrastructure damage to assess and shelter to provide. But there’s also urgency to take stock of a host of culturally important materials. After the September 29 tsunami that killed more than 150 people in Samoa, a preservation specialist from the University of Hawaii traveled to Pago Pago do just that.

“Both the high court and the registrar’s office are in historic structures right there next to the harbor,” said Lynn Davis, head of the preservation department at the University of Hawaii. “So the bottom layer of the files in each of those offices got wet. They were the most important in terms of significant and culturally important documents that got damaged.”

The documents that were damaged are priceless, and go to the very heart of Samoan culture.

“It makes my hair stand up,” said Davis. “This is the core of their culture. We’re talking about a collection of Matai Titles, which details the genealogical ties to the land. Just like Hawaii, the land is who you are. Some of these folders I opened had just these huge genealogies in them, my God. Some of them date back to 1900. And the overall condition of the materials down there, period, is in bad shape.”

But officials in Samoa acted quickly enough to avoid what could have led to much worse damage. And part of that is thanks to Davis’ work with the Western States and Territories Preservation Assistance Service, or WESTPAS. It was just about one year ago that Davis traveled to Samoa on behalf of the group, which operates with federal funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and helped officials there draw up a disaster plan for managing their historic collections. She said officials in Samoa put that plan into effect masterfully after the tsunami.

“Because they attended that workshop, they knew that the most important thing that you do right away when you have a large disaster, is to freeze your materials,” said Davis, who had the ultimate primer in handling emergency-related water damage after the disastrous Hamilton Library flood five years ago. “What freezing does, is it prevents mold growth and it buys you time so that you can figure out what you need to do next for your recovery and treatment of materials. Both the high court and the registrar’s office froze their documents. What has to happen is they all have to be rinsed because the tsunami was salt water and there are contaminates. So you basically are going to take them out, unfreeze a box at a time, rinse them, dry them and re-folder them.”

While Davis is heartened to have seen the local government in Samoa act so swiftly in the name of preservation, she said that the Western world is alarmingly lackadaisical in its approach to saving the stories of its past.

“What’s depressing to me is how uninterested we are, as a culture, in really paying attention to this material because we are going to lose it,” she said. “It’s true in Hawaii. We will lose it. People don’t pay attention to collections. There’s no money in making sure people are preserving things into perpetuity. And it’s not the fault of the museums and archives and libraries but, culturally, we’re just not doing it. I have horror stories of collections all over this town. You can’t just be passive and think these materials are going to last forever. They’re not.”