Breathing life into history

LIHUE — Helen Wong Smith knows Hawaiian history.

She lives it. She breathes it.

So when the Hilo woman saw the job opening for the administrative director of the Kauai Historical Society, she applied. The chance to oversee historical Hawaiian collections on the Garden Isle was once in a lifetime.

“That’s where my soul is,” she said Wednesday. “Hawaiian collections, I breathe.”

Wong Smith — “If the Brits can have two surnames, so can I,” she said, laughing — started her new role this week leading Kauai’s nonprofit collector and protector of the island’s history. She replaces Mary Requilman, who retired earlier this year.

She said KHS has done a fabulous job of preserving Kauai’s history, and sees a wonderful opportunity to take KHS to the next level of archiving records, assuring their accuracy and pursuing national grants to expand its reach.

“I know my knowledge could be utilized here,” Wong Smith said. “My challenge is to learn more and more about what’s significant to this island.”

KHS has a vast collection about Kauai that includes thousands and thousands of photographs, maps, plantation records, past copies of The Garden Island newspaper, books and personal papers. Wong Smith wants to make sure people know what the historical society has, what it does and how the community can get involved.

That’s where community outreach comes in, and that’s something she plans to do more of, starting with presentations in schools.

“If you don’t distinguish yourself, it doesn’t matter what treasures you have,” she said.

Donna Stewart, KHS consultant, said Wong Smith is already making a difference at KHS, whose headquarters is in the Historic County Building.

“In two days Helen has shown us things, how we can do better, how we can get more information,” she said.

Wong Smith is originally from Oahu and has called Hilo home for nearly three decades. She is a librarian and certified state archivist. She served as archivist at Queen’s Medical Center and worked at Kamehameha Schools digitizing its historic photo collection, was the Hawaii collection librarian for the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and worked with the National Park Service, archiving its Pacific collections.

A well cataloged, processed and organized collection is a must, she said. So when anyone seeks information from the historical society, its staff knows what it has, where it is, and what it doesn’t have. It takes time, and archival skills, to properly archive them so others can access that information. And it doesn’t just sit there, filed away, but is used and referred to for many reasons that bring it to life and make it relevant today.

“All of these things do have an impact on Kauai,” she said.

Another key aspect of archiving is being sure records are accurate. Verifying claims, asking questions, confirming reports, is essential.

“It’s not so much history, but correct history,” she said.

For instance, some Hawaiian history books were written by authors who did not read Hawaiian, but read accounts of events and happenings by observers.

“That’s not necessarily the whole story,” she said. “People claim certain things without documentation.”

KHS operates on grants, fundraisers, donations and memberships. One area Wong Smith believes she can make an impact is seeking national grants. She has reviewed grant proposals in her previous work and will be writing national grant applications for KHS.

“I think that’s going to be a huge influx of money,” she said.

Wong Smith, who will be commuting weekly, was hired following a statewide search.

Bill Fernandez, retired president of the Kauai Historical Society, said Wong Smith has terrific archival experience.

In speaking with staff, he said she has brought “a new light into the society.”

“In every way, she’s turning out to be a super find,” he said.

Residents are welcome to bring materials to the historical society and stop by and say hello to its new director.

“If they bring us their things, we’ll take care of it and if they agree, we’ll make it available to others,” Wong Smith said. “I want for people to realize this is a collection for them. Of the community, by the community, for the community.”

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Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or bbuley@thegardenisland.com.

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