What is RASRL?
RASRL (we pronounce it “ras-roll) is one of the largest collections in the University of Hawai‘i archives. The entire Collection is 156 linear feet, a unit of measure that reflects the amount of space required to shelve the boxes, folders, and files that contain the Collection. It consists of newspaper clippings, student papers, confidential research files, maps, and the research and teaching files of Andrew Lind, Bernhard Hormann and Clarence Glick. RASRL is an archival collection that is used by historians and professional researchers but it is also a repository of information for the local community. Because much of the information in RASRL was produced by local students and so many of the student papers deal with family and community history, RASRL is an important resource for anyone interested in the history of Hawai‘i during the Territorial Era.
What are the student papers?
The student papers are just what they sound like – assignments written by undergraduates enrolled in sociology courses from the 1920s up to the 1970s. RASRL contains as many as 10,000 papers but only a small fraction of them have been seen or read. One purpose of Thinking Locally is to draw attention to this important resource by stimulating interest in the themes and subjects in the papers.
What are the papers about?
Everything. Sometimes students were assigned a complex in-depth community study of a neighborhood. (Kaka‘ako was a favorite location.) Their goal was to measure any index of social change – demographics such as the numbers of births and deaths; movement of ethnic groups in or out of a neighborhood; and employment. A paper like this might contain details such as the names of everyone who lived on the street or of all the business owners. One paper included a map that showed all the taxi stands, movie theaters, and photography studios in a plantation town.
Some of the papers are topic specific – an examination of the lives of bellboys or prostitutes. One student described his neighborhood by talking about the people who came in and out of his family’s dry goods store. Many students described their lives on the plantation, sometimes as workers, but mostly as children attending school and playing with their friends.
Many of the assignments asked students to discuss their families, but from an objective point of view. So, in the course of writing about the pattern of family relationships, they described their siblings, who was married to whom, who was employed and where, and family misfortunes such as illness or death.
So the papers provide both a macro and micro perspective on any number of issues. We learn a great deal about gender, work, religion, and economic mobility.
Papers written by undergraduates don’t seem to be the best source material for historical research. Are they trustworthy sources?
There are several ways to look at the RASRL papers – as primary sources they are firsthand accounts of life in the territory. We can treat them in much the same way as you would a diary or a letter – something written by an individual with a limited perspective that requires context in order to make it meaningful. The advantage of the RASRL Collection is that because there are so many papers written at the same time (dozens or hundreds of papers written in the same year for the same course), it is possible to get a reliable impression of, for example, how the Nisei felt about their childhood on the plantation or how their parents reacted to the idea of interracial marriage. The RASRL papers can be used in the same way that a researcher might use oral history – using the words and life experiences of a single individual to illustrate a larger point.
The student papers can be viewed as the flip side of oral history. Oral histories are produced when people who lived through an experience are asked to relive it, to reflect on it, and to describe how the events became meaningful to them. But oral history relies on the memories of older people who may or may not remember accurately or clearly. The student papers were written from recent memory – what the students are writing about is fresh; things they have just lived through or are still experiencing. But they were written by young people who necessarily lack perspective and can only report on their own very limited experiences.
The papers are also an early form of what we would now call ethnic or cultural studies. Although it was their intention to produce scholarship that relied on statistics and quantitative data, faculty also relied heavily on qualitative data to support their findings. They used interviews, personal statements, and recorded overheard conversations to show what the data could not – the texture and fabric of how the local community was coping with martial law or the disruptive presence of the military. This was cultural studies in its earliest iteration, the practice of placing the lives of ordinary people in the foreground of historical studies
What can these papers tell us that we don’t already know?
The RASRL Collection lends itself to different types of research. The Collection is, first and foremost, local and so of interest to anyone who is interested in fleshing out their understanding of or interest in early 20th century Hawai‘i. This was a time of remarkable change – the movement of plantation workers to towns and cities, the growth of unions, changing demographics that subsequently influenced local politics. We can study these issues from the top down – from the point of view of politicians and community leaders – but what might a bellboy at a Waikīkī hotel have to tell us about tourism? What could we learn about the Depression and the New Deal in Hawai‘i from an interview with a WPA work crew in Waipahu?
I’m not a scholar. How could I use this Collection?
Anyone who had a family member who attended the University of Hawai‘i during the early 20th century might be interested in a paper written by his or her father, grandmother, or aunty. Many of the papers are remarkably personal and reveal details and family history that might never have been talked about around the dinner table. There are papers in the Collection by locally prominent people and members of well known families. For example, Douglas S. Yamamura, who served as the Chancellor of the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa, wrote papers that are a part of the RASRL Collection and were published in Social Process in Hawaii. Before he was recognized as a “Living Treasure” for his work on Hawaiian culture, Charles Kenn, wrote a paper that is included in the RASRL Collection.
Unfortunately, many of the papers are anonymous, but anyone working on a family genealogy or interested in local history would benefit from examining papers and reading journals written by students in a specific year. For example, in 1947, the University population expanded dramatically with the influx of returning veterans eager to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. Anyone interested in the history of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team might be interested in how these men reflected on their experiences or how they coped with life after the war when they became students.
The Collection can also be useful to those interested in community history. Many papers focus on specific locations, plantation towns on nearly every island, and neighborhoods on O‘ahu. And, because the RASRL Collection also contains maps, it is sometimes possible to see a visual representation of a location.
How can I read the papers in the RASRL Collection?
If you live in Hawai‘i, you’re in luck. The RASRL Collection is housed at the University of Hawai‘i Archives on the 5th floor of the Hamilton Library addition in the Moir Reading Room. If you’re not in Hawai‘i you can review the finding aids for the collection for an idea of what is included. Unfortunately, the Collection isn’t digitized, but you can read some of the papers that were published in Social Process in Hawaii.
And, of course, you can continue to read Thinking Locally!