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On the hunt for Hawai‘i’s rarest books.

Locked in too-cold rooms, often water-stained, moldy and otherwise cloaked in homeliness, hide some of the most unusual specimens of literary beauty in the world. The last remnants of vanished worlds exist on the pages of rare books housed in collections throughout the Islands, and they are a means by which we remember what we’ve forgotten, see what’s no longer there and continue to search for what we have lost.

At Bishop Museum, there is a volume–from Captain James Cook’s voyage around the Pacific–filled with dozens of samples of kapa, or bark cloth, from the daily lives of Hawaiians who lived more than 200 years ago. In the Hawaii State Archives, there is a book from 1759 signed by the Earl of Sandwich, for whom British explorers called Hawaii “the Sandwich Islands.” The Mission Houses Museum has an elementary Hawaiian-English spelling leaflet from 1822, the first-ever item printed in Hawaii.

The historical importance of these publications is staggering, yet their value is somewhat subjective. In certain circles, among those who spend their days carefully turning disintegrating pages with gloved hands and generally immersing themselves in the printed past, “rare” can mean all kinds of things.


When people think of rare books, they think of ‘valuable,’” said Ken Gloss, an appraiser for Antiques Roadshow, former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America’s New England Chapter and owner of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, which opened in 1825. “But ‘rare’ and ‘valuable’ are two different things. You can have books that are incredibly rare, impossible to find, and absolutely nobody wants them and they have no value. On the other hand, when people normally say ‘rare,’ they’re really thinking of valuable. It’s basically supply and demand. Maybe it’s the printer, the illustrator, the importance of the book, and for some reason, there is a group of people out there who want it and will pay for it.”

Gloss’ job is to find the people who are willing to pay for what he collects. His finds have been remarkable, like the first edition copy of The Great Gatsby that F. Scott Fitzgerald signed for his friend, T.S. Eliot, who then heavily annotated its pages. Another notable find happened years ago, when Gloss came across a small volume gathering dust in the cellar of an old shop.

“It was little, tiny book about Captain Cook done in the 1790s by a man on Cook’s voyages called Ledyard. You see it come up a lot at $3,000–$7,000. Most of the books did not come with the map. It’s a map of the Sandwich Islands, but really it’s the first printed map of the Hawaiian Islands. This little book had the map, which made it worth around $60,000. So I called up this collector in Hawaii who had been looking for it for 20 years. He immediately said, ‘I’ll take it, no problem.’ And I said, ‘Well, do you want to know how much it is first?’ And I told him and he said, ‘That is a lot, but I’ll still take it.’”

Unlike these private collectors and dealers, many public collections shy away from the most valuable books. Among them is the Hawaii State Archives, which keep their historical collections in a small building behind the banyan grove on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace. The state’s archivists do not seek literary rarities based on their monetary value. In fact, with few exceptions, they don’t seek literary rarities at all.

“Number one, we don’t have a budget for that,” said Luella Kurkjian, branch chief of historical records at the Hawaii State Archives. “We have an acquisition budget of zero dollars. And we’re not truly collectors because most of what we have has been given to us. Anything we do acquire, it has to do with Hawaiian history. We don’t want the Gutenberg Bible, for example.”

But many of the items pertaining to Hawaiian history that the Hawaii State Archives keep are enormously valuable, like a red and gold Atlas that’s nearly two feet tall and contains 21 maps from Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue’s 19th-century voyages of the Pacific, valued in 1990 at $65,000. It’s part of a collection that was originally to be stored at the University of Hawaii, but acquired by the state after conditions at UH were deemed imperfect for preservation at the time.

“The story that comes with that Russian atlas is that it was bound and created for a czarina, which is why it has the gold tooling and the beautiful lettering and all,” said Kurkjian. “There are only two maps of Hawaii in that book and what the Russians were really interested in was the harbor, and the depth of the harbor because they had to bring their ships in. But they also recorded some of the things on land: the taro fields, the salt ponds and the homes of the people.”

Rare books specialists at the University of Hawaii say the depictions represent the first printed portrayal of native Hawaiians that is accurate.

“This was really the first time anyone drew or represented the indigenous people the way they actually looked, rather than others who made them look like Greek Gods,” said Deborah Dunn, a book conservation technician in the Hamilton Library Preservation Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which is launching a special collections initiative to improve public and scholarly access to the school’s rare books, including works dating from the 1600s.

“It’s beautiful,” said Dunn of the Atlas. “The artist did the best job. Just amazing.”

Kurkjian said the atlas may be her favorite rare book at the Archives, but estimates the most valuable–in monetary terms–is an account of Cook’s death by David Samwell from the 1780s.

“I can’t tell you exactly what it’s worth,” said Kurkjian. “It may well be worth more than $100,000. It’s kept in a safe. So we do have collections full of rare things, and the fact that they’re rare is a complication because it takes on a monetary value. So we have to consider preservation, security and conservation work for whatever might be acquired. Our initial interest is the content of the book as opposed to its monetary value.”

That’s true, too, at libraries throughout the state, which store a number of unusual books and documents pertaining to Hawaiian history, and emphasize the value of information-sharing over the appraised value of any particular book.

“Because our interest is in the information, we do things like re-bind, which a rare-book collector would never ever do,” said Martha Hoverson, the librarian responsible for Hawaii documents at the main branch of the Hawaii State Public Library.

Hoverson handles an abundance of historic Hawaiian documents, including early legislation and other government records. Such documents, pamphlets and even letters are usually included under the “rare books” umbrella by those who study, collect and keep them. At the Mission Houses Museum, for example, one of the museum library’s prized artifacts, marked “extremely rare,” is the first-ever printed Kingdom of Hawaii Constitution from 1839.

Appropriately, the Mission Houses Museum–which tells the story of the missionaries who brought the written word to Hawaii by way of a used, hand-cranked Ramage printing press in 1819–contains a trove of early-printed items.

“The printing press’ arrival in Hawaii represented the first time that the printed word had been introduced in the Hawaiian archipelago,” said historian Peter Salter, who served as the senior resident historian at the Mission Houses Museum for more than a decade. “Obviously these missionaries had the charge and agenda of conveying their ideology and theology. People say the oral tradition of the Hawaiian people was being compromised as a result, that you cede certain things to the written word. That’s true, physically, but intellectually, Hawaiian scholars and editors were able to pen material that was passed on to their people and became a legacy of the written word to their scholarship.”

Some of those written legacies are now preserved in the Rare Book Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, so we have a vast and rather complex collection of materials,” said Clark Evans, head of reference services in the Rare Book Reading Room. “And we do have something called the Hawaiian Imprint Collection.”

The collection is comprised of 353 items, mostly early-printed government documents, religious texts, schoolbooks, pamphlets and other literary relics. Somewhat surprisingly, publications from Hawaii were gathered for inclusion in the reading room not after statehood, but when the reading room first opened in 1927.

“One of the early librarians thought it would be interesting, Hawaii then being a territory, to track down early Hawaiian imprints that were then in the general collections of the Library of Congress and move them over to the Rare Book Reading Room for future protection,” said Evans.

An elusive quarry

Many collectors, historians and preservationists–those at the Library of Congress included–prize the earliest items printed in Hawaii, that is, materials from the Missionary era. But the oldest printed references to the Islands, those that pertain to exploration of the Pacific, are in many ways most consistent with the intrigue of rare books in general.

After all, sustaining a passion for unusual and long-forgotten books requires the vim and determination of an explorer. There are garage sales to visit, used bookstores to peruse, library and museum sales not to miss, dealers to call, auctions to attend and estate sales to comb through. All of this for what’s likely an aesthetically modest collection of pages, all the while knowing that most searches are fruitless.

For those treasures that can be found, antique book enthusiasts often argue that picking a favorite is too hard. Dunn, the conservation technician from UH, calls a tortoiseshell bible at the Mission Houses Museum “mouthwatering.” Evans, from the Library of Congress, prizes the reading room’s copy of an unremarkable-looking elementary English grammar book that Abraham Lincoln assiduously studied so that he could write speeches like the Gettysburg Address despite having had less than a year of formal education in his life. Carol White, head librarian at the Mission Houses Museum, cherishes the museum’s copy of a missionary era journal kept by Levi Chamberlain, who fastidiously recorded the details of day-to-day life in 19th-century Hawaii.

And while literary explorers tend to hem and haw when asked to definitively name a favorite, those who are actively looking can always name their holy grail–the treasure that keeps them on the hunt. Even then, though, there is never just one item that would end the quest. For Gloss, the book dealer in Boston, a nondescript pamphlet printed in the Northeast in the 1820s tops his list.

“A book called Tamerlane,” said Gloss. “It was by a Bostonian in the 1820s, just this little pamphlet. Basically, it was a terrible poem, but the Bostonian who did it happened to be Edgar Allen Poe. There are only 20 known copies and these little tiny pamphlets tend to show up very, very rarely. It would be nice to go to some auction and find it at the bottom of the box. At auction, you could get maybe half a million dollars for it. There’s always hoping, you know, the dream. And there are so many of them, the next hope for the next collection. Be it Audobon’s birds, Curtis’ photos of the American Indians or Cook’s voyages, in all of them is almost the same feeling.” �