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The Mission

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The following is a guest post by Sheila McMullin, a 2012-2013 intern at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center.

Sheila McMullin in the Poetry Room of the LC Poetry and Literature Center.

In 2009, I had just moved back from college in Arizona to my parents home in Orange County, California. One day my mother, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Riverside, came home with a package from her office. It was her first book, The Healthy Ancestor: Embodied Inequality and the Revitalization of Native Hawai’ian Health. Over the better course of a decade my mother worked on research, and the result was the book in her hands—a book that moved from the thesis section at her university library to the ranks of published works with an ISBN and Library of Congress call number.

Many years later I moved from California to Washington D.C. to earn my MFA degree in Creative Writing at George Mason University. In my third year of grad school, I started an internship with the LC Poetry and Literature Center. When I called home to brag, my father reminded me that The Healthy Ancestor and my mother’s other scholarly book are in the Library, and I should go see them and take a photo of them.

Finding my mother’s books in the Library was important for my father as a way to remind my mother how hard she worked to get them published. For me, it was a reminder of my time in Hawai’i and how I changed from a shy little girl to an outgoing poet, teacher, and activist.

I started my search—on my mother’s birthday!—in the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building and learned quickly that my mother’s books were actually in the Adams Building. I spun in circles multiple times in the underground tunnels connecting the Library’s three Capitol Hill buildings, looking for signs in any possible area, and finally found the elevator to take me to the Adams Building stacks! I went up to the 3rd floor, exited, donuted, and got right back on the elevator to the 5th and proper floor.

Because I did not reserve my books online in advance, I had to wait. For 45 minutes, I wondered: who else had waited for these books? Did they read them from cover to cover? Did they find what they were looking for? I thought about how young my mother was when she took me to do her research with her—finishing her dissertation with a little one around. How did she do it? As I daydreamed about living in a small town on the Big Island, a reference librarian brought the The Healthy Ancestor to me.

As soon as I saw the book, I was reminded of the friends, aunties, and uncles that supported my mother and me during our stay. And in the grand Science and Business Reading Room, my heart became heavy and my eyes started tearing. I immediately opened to the acknowledgements page and found my father’s name and my name. As I work on my graduate degree, I better understand the commitment my mother and father made to their work. They are always encouraging me to do my best. And although we are so far away from one another now, the work my mother has accomplished is so close.

My mother used this Hawaiian proverb in the beginning of her book, and now I give it to you with all the best wishes: “Me he lau no ke ko’olau ke aloha,” which translates to Love is like the ends (fingertips) of the Ko`olau breeze. Love is like a zephyr, gentle and invisible but present nevertheless.


Comments (7)

  1. As writers move towards electronic publishing and away from print, I think there’s still something irreplaceable in the experience of being able to physically find, hold, and experience your (or your mother’s) writing. That search, the and challenge to move across physical space to get a physical reward, and how even that could have been sped up by going online, is fantastic. I personally love the accessibility of online publishing, but also that opportunity you took of being able to physically hold on to a piece of you and your family’s past.

  2. a most excellent story. Mahalo!

  3. Lovely story, Sheila, thanks for your insights. And I agree with John Dwyer about the irreplaceable value, intellectual and emotional, connected to print books and journals. Digital, electronic is wonderful, but somehow incomplete.

  4. Like so many others that own and utilize a Kendal, I-pad, nook or other electronic media, I also find indescribable satisfaction in the tactile feel of hard cover or paperbacks books. Much more gratifying is the knowledge of a familiarity with the author that most others do not have. Historical writings take on a whole new meaning when related to your personal culture and family. The genealogy book I got from my father sat on a shelf for several decades, before I picked it up one day. I wish I had read it sooner.

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