Editor’s Page: For the Records

It took a HONOLULU assignment to get me into the Hawai‘i State Archives. It may take a force of nature to get me out.
Christi Young

I n July, Robbie Dingeman took me on a field trip. It doesn’t take much to lure me away from my computer but this offer had a special appeal. We were heading to the state archives to find photos for this month’s feature, “Honolulu: Then and Now.”


The Hawai‘i State Archives is in a simple square building between the Carnegie-column-adorned Hawai‘i State Public Library and stately ‘Iolani Palace. The Kekāuluohi Building is the archives’ second home. The Public Archives of Hawai‘i opened in 1906 in the smaller Kana‘ina Building in front. The classic, white one-story was the first fireproof structure built for a public archive in the U.S. and it housed the collection until the move to the more modern building in 1953.


Stashed away in the staff-only vault are 12,000 cubic feet of artifacts including dies used to mint Hawaiian coins, Hawaiian government seals, royal silverware and even pieces of clothing worn by dignitaries more than a century ago. 


So, I was expecting something grand when I first walked into the public-access reading room. Instead, the entrance resembled any other state office, with modular office furniture behind a worn counter. We registered, locked our bags in a locker, then joined a few people sitting at simple metal tables in front of a few bookshelves. It was underwhelming. That is, until I got close enough to read what was on those shelves. Passenger manifests from the early 1900s, categorized by ethnicity. Copies of more than 20 handwritten treaties between the sovereign nation of Hawai‘i and other countries, including Belgium and Japan, and a peace and commerce agreement with Napoleon III. Catalogs of every headstone in O‘ahu cemeteries.

  The Public Archives of Hawai‘i

The Public Archives of Hawai‘i opened in 1906 in the smaller Kana‘ina Building.
Photo: courtesy of the public archives of hawai‘i


I could have happily disappeared for hours, geeking out on marriage and divorce records and 19th-century court cases and searching for any paper trail my ancestors left behind. But we were on the hunt for photos. We combed through the photo collection index, filling out request slips for images sorted by neighborhood, event or topic, some as vague as “Children” or “Communications.” Then, while the helpful staff stepped into the back, I sat, fidgeting with anticipation until my name was called—my mystery folders were ready.


Every stack of images held surprises. Robbie and I examined aerial photographs taken by the Army in 1939, tried to identify streets from the 1800s and took a quick trip through past political campaigns. Robbie and our art directors returned to the archives a few more times to pick our favorite scenes from the past; photographer Aaron K. Yoshino then used those images as he walked through Downtown, Waikīkī and more to capture the same places from the same perspectives today. The contrast is striking.


My public archive adventure continues online. At night, once the kids go to bed, I’ll often gleefully sneak downstairs to spend a blissful few hours accessing the collection digitally, clicking through photos, searching for my great-grandparents’ marriage records or reading the histories of strangers from the past. This month, we’ll all have the chance to see more during American Archives Month. Every October, the state archives offers special lectures and exhibits to showcase what it preserves in that building on King Street. This year, the theme reflects Gov. David Ige’s declaration that 2018 is the “Year of the Hawaiian.” 


And if you visit the reading room and find me on an extended lunch break, diving down another rabbit hole of Hawai‘i history, please don’t tell my boss.

  Christi Young


Got a good story? Reach me at christiy@honolulumagazine.com