Helen Wong Smith, 2016 SAA Fellow, Executive Director at Kaua’i Historical Society
Hometown: He’eia, O’ahu
Current City: Resides in Hilo, but works in Lihu’e
Racial/Ethnic Identity: Helen explains that, in Hawai’i, the Portuguese, although they are Caucasian, are not regarded as the rest of the Caucasians referred to as haole. Helen’s Chinese and Portuguese heritage is referred to as hapa (half) ethnicities.
Intersecting Identities (from social identities to hobbies): keiki o ka ‘aina (child of the land) Having dedicated 35+ years to Hawaiian culture and resources, Helen explains that because she was not born with Native Hawaiian blood, she is not allowed to call herself a Hawaiian. One cannot refer to one’s self as a Hawaiian in the way one who is from Iowa refers to herself as an Iowan.
Hero: Eleanor Roosevelt and Sophia Loren
Helen Wong Smith, a graduate of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa with 35 years of experience in archives, was inducted as a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists at the 2016 Annual Meeting. Wong Smith was recognized for her work in bringing cultural competency training into her service as part of SAA as well as in her current position as the Executive Director of the Kaua’i Historical Society. Wong Smith delivered a plenary address on “Adopting Cultural Diversity Competence” at SAA’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Cleveland, which you can view from from 13:30-19:17 at the link.
From Society of American Archivists:
Wong Smith has generously shared her time and expertise throughout her career, providing free workshops to help promote the care of family papers and being a constant advocate for archives. She has been the president of the Association of Hawaiian Archivists twice, the Hawaiian Library Association, and the Hawaiian Historical Society. She has been active on the national level, too, serving SAA in a variety of leadership capacities, including on the Council, the Committee on Education, and the Nominating Committee. She is also a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and served on their Nominating Committee.
Helen was interviewed by Joyce Gabiola for this project. Joyce is a current PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. They try to be mindful by approaching archival praxis through an anti-oppressive lens. After 4 years hanging out in Boston, they are happy to be in L.A. Because Filipino food. And tacos. They also tweet @gabrarian
JG: Why archives?
HWS: There weren’t a lot of certified archivists back then in Hawai’i. The more I gained experience working with collections, I saw the need for people who managed collections to know proper procedures and precepts…along with diversity. Working on archival collections doesn’t make you an archivist.
Did your friends and family members know exactly what you had chosen to do as a career?
Heck no. [Laughs] Maybe that’s why I do outreach to anybody, even elementary through high school students. If people don’t know exactly what we do, then they undervalue [the profession and its purpose]. And if they know, then they’ll hold us up to a higher standard.
How have you explained the significance of archives to people?
I first ask if they understand the difference between a library and archives. I explain that a library has published material while archives are collections of unpublished materials, so a particular document is likely the only copy. Our treatment of materials also differ due to the varied uses that a collection might have. For instance, records from a sugar plantation could be consulted by a scientist to show proof of global warming based on rainfall, a developer to determine what kind of pesticides were sprayed on lands, and also a genealogist to discover the ancestry via personnel records. Our job as archivists is to show what we have, but also what isn’t there—what this collection lacks. This is why it’s important for professionalization.
What sparks you about being an archivist?
Making people aware of what is available to them. When I can provide something to someone that they need—to make them aware, especially if they didn’t know it existed—something they needed and appreciate.
What do you envision for the archival profession as well as graduate programs in terms of “diversity”?
That non-traditional experience and education leading to acceptance to programs and positions be provided equal weight. The traditional paths to both do lend themselves to a diverse profession. I am not advocating affirmative action mandates, but the recognition and acknowledgement of the benefits of diversity in its broadest interpretation.
How can SAA contribute to your vision?
By advocating, providing, and practicing diversity initiatives to enlighten those who are unaware of the need in our profession. This can include census i.e. A*Census, expanding my 2008 survey of graduate program diversity initiatives; increasing appointments of diverse members to leadership positions; and of course, providing cultural competency training to all members.
With the support of Dennis Meissner and Kathleen Roe, Helen contributed to bringing cultural competency to the foreground of SAA. She reflected on the workshop she facilitated for the SAA council and staff and shared: “The time is right. We’ve lived as the marginalized our whole lives. This is new for most in the profession.”
Furthermore, in connection with recently becoming a SAA Fellow, Helen recalled how she felt when she first became a member of SAA:
I felt very isolated. Not un-welcomed, but definitely not embraced. When seeing who was on Council and the leadership,I believed the only place would be AACR. There wasn’t a clear opportunity for me back then, so I was shocked when I became a Fellow. I haven’t written books, so being elected is an example of inclusion and diversity. From the middle of the Pacific my contribution has been limited and it’s most likely the introduction and training in cultural competency that has led SAA to recognize me.
Do you have any advice for students who are pursuing their degrees in archival studies, archives management, etc.?
Practice diversity and cultural competency yourself! Donʻt allow reverse discrimination to be your mantra. Be prepared for the microaggressions and donʻt let them waylay you.
- Director, Kaua’i Historical Society, 2015-present
- Pharmacy and Health Sciences Information Resources Coordinator, University of Hawai’i at Hilo, 2013-2015
- Archivist, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, 2009-2013
- Librarian/Archivist, University of Hawai’i at Hilo, 2007-2009
- Historical/Cultural Specialist, Kamehameha Schools, 2004-2007
- Helen Wong Smith. “Transition from Tradition to Western Medicine in Hawai’i (Part 2): Western Legislative Impacts on Traditional Medicine Practices.” Hawai’i Journal of Medicine & Public Health 75, no. 5 (2016): 148-150.
- Helen Wong Smith. “Transition from Traditional to Western Medicine in Hawai’i (Part 1).” Hawai’i Journal of Medicine & Public Health 75, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.
- Kerri A. Inglis and Helen Wong Smith. “University of Hawaii, Hilo: UH-Hilo & the Christensen Photographic Collection: Preserving a Piece of Hamākua’s History.” Past or Portal? Enhancing Undergraduate Education through Special Collections and Archives. Edited by Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden and Suzy Taraba. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012.
Association of Certified Archivists
- Nominating Committee Chair, 2012-2014
Association of Hawaii Archivists
- President, 2000-2001, 2007-2008
- Treasurer, 2004-2006
- Director, 1996-1999
Hawaiian Historical Society
- Board Member, 2011-2014
- Vice President, 2012-2013
Society of American Archivists
- Council, 2013-2016
- Key Contact for Hawai’i, 2012-2014
- Committee on Education, 2008-2010
- Nominating Committee, 2008-2009
- Fellow, Society of American Archivists, 2016
- Agnes C. Conrad Award, Association of Hawai’i Archivists, 2009