Deborah Saito

Deborah Saito, Retired Archivist and Volunteer Archivist, United Methodist Church of Kent

Deborah Saito (she goes by “Deb” and her surname is pronounced Sah-ee-toe) was born and raised in Wisconsin. She’s lived all over — Alaska, Hawaii, California, Colorado, and finally settled in Ohio. Deb is retired from the profession but currently volunteers as the United Methodist Church of Kent’s archivist, which she has done since 2010. Her first library position, after earning her Masters of Information Studies, was at the Stratton Library, a consortium library for Sheldon Jackson College, in Sitka, Alaska. In 1984, she became the Business Archivist for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. Deb was a charter member of the Association of Hawaii Archivists. After moving to California, Deb was the Reference Librarian at Mission College in Santa Clara. When she lived in Colorado, she worked as the College Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Colorado College and later as the Reference Librarian in the Ft. Collins Public Library. In Colorado, Deb’s service activities really ramped up. She served on the Colorado Historical Records Advisory Board (1995–2001), and was the Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists Vice President, President, and Past-President (1993–1996). For the Society of American Archivists, Deb was on the Membership Committee (1995–1998) and in the Mentoring Program (1995, 2001), and she also served as the Archivists & Archives of Color Roundtable chair & co-chair (1995–1997).

Deb, along with Karen Jefferson, was instrumental in changing the name of the roundtable from the African American and Third World Archivists Roundtable to the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable—the name the Archivists and Archives of Color Section shares 20 years later.

Deb was interviewed by Rachel Seale. Rachel is the Outreach Archivist at Special Collections and University Archives at Iowa State University. Her professional interests include instruction and outreach assessment.

RS: How did you get involved with the African-American & Third World Archivists RT?

DS: “Oh, I’ll never forget that. It was …1987, they had the meeting in New York City, so I flew in from HSPA [Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association] from Honolulu, I was just wiped out that first day. Traveling east gets to me more than traveling west. I had never been involved with SAA, I had been with the Alaska Library Association back in the day, had attended some Hawai’i Library Association gatherings…When I read about this proposed roundtable of Archivists of Color, it wasn’t called that. I remember opening the door and it was packed and I want to say I was the only non-African American person in the room. Karen Jefferson, at the time she was the archivist at Duke, I think, a wonderful person, I opened the door and thought I am in the wrong room. She [Jefferson] pointed at me and said, “She is precisely the reason we need to expand and make this group more inclusive.” I’ll never forget because everyone turned around and looked. Again because I was the only non-African American in the room.

There was some tentativeness, to put it in a polite way, because some thought “African-American” had to be in the title. I was staying quiet because it was my first meeting. But she [Jefferson] and others said we need to be less focused on African-American, it needs to be more inclusive. AATWAR [is the] acronym that came from that meeting. African American Third World Archivist Roundtable. I said “that’s not really a very good acronym.” If you’re looking at my ancestry of Japan, it’s not really a third-world country either. That was the compromise at the time. I was this lone voice, a minority within the minorities. Karen Jefferson–she and I were in touch for many years but we’ve lost track over the years. Karen Jefferson was really the advocate for being more inclusive. And also then I think maybe 2 to 3 years later it was changed to the Archivists & Archives of Color [Roundtable].

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Image courtesy of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center

You have gone back & forth professionally working as an archivist and a librarian. Why? Deb stated that working as both an archivist and a librarian allowed for versatility.

As an undergraduate, Deb’s experience was with libraries and museums. She worked at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point Natural History Museum and at University Library. Deb ended up in Alaska because her brother, Lincoln, who still lives in Alaska, thought she’d like it there. Her undergraduate experience in the museum and library helped her secure her position at Sheldon Jackson College, which is no longer in existence but at the time was the oldest higher education institution in Alaska, founded in 1878.

While in Alaska, Deb became active in service; she helped start the Sitka chapter of the Alaska Library Association (AkLA). She did not have a Master’s in Library Science and discovered that Alaska and Hawaii had reciprocity regarding in-state tuition. Deb received her Master of Library and Information Studies degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, HI.

After earning her degree, she was a reference librarian at Sheldon Jackson College’s Stratton Library. She worked for two years and the State of Alaska forgave half her student loan. In 1984, Deb was hired as the archivist for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association Plantation Archives. She was still looked upon as an outsider from the Hawaiian perspective.

In starting that large of a project and working with, it ended up being ten plantations… Took time to develop their trust. Thankful that Hawaiian Sugar Planter’s Association (HSPA), corporate headquarters for all Hawaiian sugar plantations, took it upon themselves to preserve their heritage. [They] saw many of their records going to [the] West Coast….the correspondence in the sugarcane records showed there was an assembly camp in Waimea and possibly Kauai. The Japanese priests were one of the first to be evacuated from Hawaii and sent to Tule Lake.

Deb told me that her parents met in Tule Lake Relocation Center. Both of her parents were Nisei, which means their parents were Japanese immigrants, but they were born in the United States. Her mother, Fumiko Yabe, was an opera singer. Her father was Perry H. Saito. He is one of two people that author Klancey de Nevers writes about in the book The Colonel and the Pacifist. de Nevers parallels the stories of Colonel Karl Bendetsen and Perry Saito. The former was responsible for the relocation of Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest during World WWII, the latter a victim of internment who later became an activist.

The colonel was Karl Bendetsen, who wrote up the Executive Order 9066… Both the Colonel and the Pacifist grew up in small dinky mining town in southwest Washington state. Dad was very active on race relations back in the ’50s and ’60s in the state of Wisconsin. Served under 3 different governors. He advised the selective service back in the 1960s… He would work with the service to confirm or not confirm a young man’s conscientious objector status and all that.

Deb also sent me an email after our interview, included below.

A little known fact, we came across Senator Inouye’s grandfather’s sugar plantation contract. It, along with dozens of others, were sandwiched in and carbon copies of typed letters were pasted [onto] these accordion-pressed good quality paper stock.

Once the book was carefully dissected, we were able to flatten the contracts and salvage most, holes and all. We used the Hawaiian sun to penetrate mildewy paper, swept off the mold with fine brushes, further “baked” them for an hour or so, and then rehoused the ledgers. We used desiccant in aluminum foil trays and Pyrex dishes tightly covered to dehumidify paper, we used what was afforded us to help preserve the material while using computers and early database programs to provide access. Wow, you opened some memories I haven’t had for decades… it was a fun remembrance.

Why do you think it helped to have such varied experience?

“For me personally, library school used to like to have people from a number of different disciplines. Librarians tend to know a little bit about a lot of different things. My area and interest was in historical documentation and having history come alive. Having the MLS was handy to have in the academic world because it was a requirement to work in the libraries. As you can tell, I worked in academic libraries and I worked in public libraries, corporate archives and college archives. [I] just laugh and say “yes I have a very checkered past.” My passion, though, is the archives, developing the archives. Those positions were not as forthcoming as library positions were. My husband, we moved from Hawaii to the mainland, and then when we started a family, it also gave me the option of going part-time. There were more opportunities in the library field to go part-time then there ever was in the archives field. I volunteer now and started the church archives. We just celebrated our bicentennial last year…they used a lot of materials from the archives.”

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