Tales from the Basement

Chezlani Casar is currently the Program Leader for Earl’s Garage, a non-profit makerspace that encourages kids to become inventors and problem solvers. Nope, definitely not a library!

As I mentioned in my farewell post last spring, my first professional position after finishing my MLISc was an unexpected contract role in local government. You never know where library school may take you! After planning to work in a public library, suddenly I landed in more of an archival position (with a serious basement-cleaning component), with no guidance but my own common sense to fall back on. I was a solo librarian, appointed to do one (massive) task, with little input from the department I worked in. Fresh out of school, with no professional experience whatsoever, I was now the “expert” who was supposed to know how to proceed.

This story begins in a basement. Not a moldy basement, thankfully, but a deep, dark, cold and lonely one. A basement full of mysteries. In boxes.

The basement belongs to the Hawai‘i County Building in Hilo, which has arguably the most gorgeous view of any building on the island. The windows of the Department of Research & Development look out onto a vast park, where expansive lawns lead to a picturesque river with the bayfront beyond.

The basement has no windows.

Research & Development, as you might imagine, is a department which does a lot of research. Tasked with covering the disparate territories of tourism, agriculture, energy, business development, film production, and immigration, R&D also maintains a grant database and produces the County’s annual Data Book of statistics. It is a very interesting place to work, where I enjoyed hearing daily news before it hit the newspapers, and where the mayor might wander in to chat with members of our staff at a moment’s notice. The County Council chamber was just down the hall, and when big issues were up for debate, the atrium would fill with people waiting to make their testimony. Hot-button issues around here included a styrofoam ban (passed) and a bill limiting to four the number of roosters a person could keep (failed big-time).

But back to the basement, where I spent 95% of my time. In the days when R&D’s research depended on hard-copy books (you know where this is going), the librarian was an integral member of the staff. In my best reckoning, the research library dated back to around 1960. The last librarian retired in 2007. Ten years and several mayoral administrations later, and the library had been boxed and moved numerous times, ending up in R&D’s section of the basement. No one used it any more, largely because it was inaccessible and incomprehensible. No one knew what was there, if it was of value, nor what they should do with it. But they wanted to clean out their basement.

Enter me: the fresh library school grad. I met the department head, assured her that I would be able to work alone in the basement without panicking, and that yes, I did know what those weird letter/number combinations on the books meant. The job was mine.

As you probably know by now, landing a job and actually doing the job are two different things. Now I had to face the challenge! Thankfully, if there’s one thing I learned in library school, it was that not knowing how to do something is no barrier to actually doing it. Some say “fake it till you make it,” but if the old showbiz adage feels too foreign for you, think of it this way: just start plugging away at the work until the path reveals itself. In this case, that meant opening some spreadsheets and opening a lot of boxes to see what the heck was in them.

Some things were obviously headed straight for the recycling: old fax directories, anyone? The census in print form? Decades’ worth of labor force statistics? Those things were easy, if boring, to decide about.

Other things were less clear: environmental impact statements, for example. They might be available online, but did that mean we had no reason to keep our copy? What about EISs for projects that were never built? Potentially useful for future developers/regulators. Things to contemplate.

Then there were the odd things, historical relics that depicted a former time and hinted at the department’s past.

For scientific purposes, apparently. Raising frogs for food was only a secondary consideration (of course I had to read it!)

After several months of weeding out the obvious, and putting stuff like the bullfrog pamphlet into “what on earth do I do with this?” piles, I eventually had to figure out what to actually do with it all. I had to come up with systems that could be used by R&D staff without the benefit of a staff librarian to help anybody. It was quite apparent that LCC was not going to be of help here, and for the most part, neither was Dewey. Nor was anybody else, as no one in R&D had time or capacity to help, and I wasn’t able to find any other librarian who had encountered such a situation before. I was on my own.

So, just in case you, dear reader, ever find yourself in a basement, tasked with such an odd job, I’d like to share with you what I eventually came up with as solutions. Far from perfect, I’m sure, and other librarians may not agree. But I did what I could in the time that I had, and here it is.

I separated the collection into 5 parts, as follows:

    1. Hawaiiana Reference: These are (mostly) published works pertaining to the history, culture, and natural environment here in Hawai‘i. Since almost all these books could also be found in the Hawai‘i State Public Library System, and many would be familiar to my patrons, I classified them using Dewey numbers pulled from the HSPLS catalog.
    2. Place-based: These works were largely of interest because of their particular geographic locations here on Hawaii Island. Due to their wide-ranging and random subject matter, it made much more sense to organize them by location than by topic. I arranged them by district, and within that, as much as possible by ahupua‘a, the traditional mountaintop-to-ocean land division system we use here in Hawai‘i.
    3. Magazines: Several decades’ worth of mostly business magazines focused on Hawai‘i Island. Fascinating for their historical research (and entertainment!) value. Simply arranged by title and date.
    4. Archival: These were the county records that we just could not throw away, because they might well not exist elsewhere. They might also not ever be looked at again, but there should be a copy somewhere just in case. Things like operational budgets and annual departmental reports, arranged by type of document and year.
    5. Ephemera: Everyone’s favorite! This was where I put all the weird pamphlets. These were the things I trotted out upstairs for the rest of staff when I needed some human contact and comic relief. There were a surprising amount of them, or maybe they just loomed larger as my sanity contemplated another box of dusty census materials. But you can really get a lot of comic traction out of a 1970s urban planning pamphlet that somehow included TWO separate illustrations of topless women (Thanks to the City & County of Honolulu for that one!). Ephemera were by their nature pretty un-organizable, but I sure tried. By subject (when possible), otherwise they just got general numbers to put them in some kind of order.

So that was my classification scheme. If you want to see some of my crazy call numbers, you can visit the catalog online here. I selected Librarika as our online platform, largely due to its ability to host e-books in addition to providing a decent ILS. It’s still in its infancy, since I had to build the entire catalog from scratch, but hopefully over time R&D will continue to add functionality to this interface. The current plan is to make digital copies available upon request.  My dream would be to see the entire collection digitized and keyword-searchable, preferably under the umbrella of Ulukau, the Hawaiian Electronic Library.

I learned a ton from this strange job, largely about the history of development on Hawai‘i Island. For a while, I thought it possible that, in the long term, no one was going to actually benefit from this entire exercise except me. I got a big education by going through those books, but who else was ever going to look at them? They’re largely too old to be relevant to the daily work of R&D. Only historical researchers would find them of value, and they might not ever find them! But the job ended in March, and I had to make my peace with that possibility.

Then came the lava flow. No doubt you’ve heard of it by now: whole communities in Puna have been erased by Kīlauea’s east rift zone. Hawai‘i County has not only a disaster response situation to deal with, but the long work of rebuilding ahead. How to proceed going forward?

Suddenly, my little library (yes, I felt very proprietary after all that time spent down there) was needed. Hawai‘i County undertook a huge civic works project after the devastating tsunami of 1960, called Project Kaiko‘o. It redeveloped Hilo’s downtown area, specifically relocating housing away from flood zones, and created the beautiful riverfront park that is a gem of today’s downtown. Now that Hawai‘i County needs to do something similar in Puna, I’m proud to say that people who questioned the value of my library project are now using the collection to access information about Project Kaiko‘o. One small victory for the relevance of libraries!

I’d welcome any queries or thoughts about this project and process! Feel free to email me: casar (at) hawaii.edu. Mahalo for reading!

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