PAMBU: safeguarding the documentary heritage of the Pacific for 50 years

02 August 2018

The Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, affectionately known as PAMBU, is a not-for-profit organisation auspiced by the School of Culture, History and Language at the College of Asia and the Pacific. Its collection spans four centuries and includes records from individuals and organisations such as churches, businesses, governments and civil society organisations. It was established in 1968 in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

“Librarians and academics of the time observed that the primary documentation required to study the Pacific in any depth was difficult to access and often vulnerable. Archives and manuscripts were often in private hands or stored in churches, offices and residences in remote parts of the Pacific. The humid climate and vulnerability to natural disasters were considered threats to archival materials,” explains Kari James, the current archivist and executive officer at PAMBU. 

“This multi-institution, multi-nation collaboration is a rare and innovative project that has endured half a century and enabled research in many disciplines through preservation of, and access to, primary documents on subjects as diverse as religious missions, linguistics, whaling, colonial administration and coffee production, amongst others,” James said.  

In 2018, the bureau marks half a century of documenting and safeguarding records about Pacific nations and communities. 

It is considered the most extensive collection of non-government primary documentation on the Pacific Islands available to researchers, comprising more than 4,000 microfilms, over 8,500 digitised photographs and over 130,000 pages of newly digitised documents.

Ewan Maidment was the archivist for the PAMBU for 17 years from 1995 to 2012.  He laughs as he remembers his job interview. “They asked me: how’s your back? Some people think that the work of an archivist is just glorified filing. It turned out that there was a lot more to it than that.”

“There are so many different cultures in the Pacific. I learned to open my mind to the environment and the people. The reciprocity and island style hospitality was always generous. I hope I gave back enough.”

For Maidment, the greatest importance of the archive is its role as part the infrastructure of the Pacific as a whole. Relationships are the thing have made it possible to keep the documentary heritage of the Pacific accessible.

“In a collecting archive, you establish relationships right across the field you are working in. You get to know the people, you travel around to work with them, there is interaction, reciprocity, there are ongoing relationships, not just dead bodies of records but continuing transfers of records. There is a lot of goodwill.”

There were many adventures in Maidment’s long tenure as the PAMBU archivist.

“I once worked on the Levers Archives in the Russell Islands in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. I was in Honiara and was waiting for the ferry across, but there had been a cyclone and the ferry didn’t come. So I got on a mission plane out to the islands. It was the kind of plane that the pilot says a prayer before you take off.”

Nonetheless, Maidment arrived safely and found that the records at Yandina were in a beautiful, purpose-built structure outside the admin office. Levers had been operating that coconut plantation for copra since the 1920s. “You could smell the copra ovens nearby, it has quite an acrid smell,” he remembers. The documents included land acquisition records and other company data.

The question in the job interview make sense in light of the process of the fieldwork. “To make the microfilm I would use a Hirokawa camera, which weighed about 19 kilograms. I’d have to take the film for the camera, so on a trip like that I’d have to take about 25 rolls, which was another 20 kilos plus the extra gear,” he explains.

“Reels are about 130 feet long, I’d get about 600 exposures on a reel, I could get 1200 pages if I took two pages at a time. Depending on the material I was copying and its condition, it would be between one and three reels a day.

It was monotonous work, but Maidment has very fond memories. “I worked long hours there but, going back at night in Yandina, I remember the fireflies in the coconut groves. The Russell Islands are a stunning set of islands,” he recalls.

He left the island on a banana boat very early in the morning, about 4 am. “The captain prayed again before we left, and we headed off in the darkness through a maze of islands. He had no map except for his sense of the sea and a spare can of petrol. On the other side, I got on a truck back to Honiara. Very glorified filing indeed,” remarks Ewan.

During 2014, then Executive Officer Kylie Moloney oversaw the transition from microfilm to digital. All new collections since 2015 have been captured digitally and delivered to member libraries via an online platform. Digital collections are now more accessible to more communities in the Pacific than was possible with microfilm.

“The bureau has recognised the risk to archival materials in the Pacific, primarily due to the harsh Pacific  climate. With Pacific Islands  already experiencing  the  brunt  of climate change, the work the bureau has done in the past and will continue to do in the future, is more important than ever,” says James.

In this milestone year, the University of Papua New Guinea will join as a subscribing institution. UPNG University Librarian Leah Kalamoroh will sign the member agreement at a special event ANU on the 8 August.

Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

Image credit: PAMBU Photo 91-056

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team