Check It Out: Hawai‘i’s Public Library System Offers Way More Than Just Books

Books make up the backbone of the only statewide library system in the U.S., but there’s a lot more to Hawai‘i libraries—including apps, online classes and digital books.
Wai‘anae children’s library
Wai‘anae children’s librarian Danielle Todd reads a big book at Toddler Time to, from left, Bear Braun, Emmalie Banda and Ezra Banda.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino

Pre-med student Kaili Agabin studies a textbook, adjusts her headphones and takes notes on her laptop, plugged into a sleek power tower on the wooden table while she preps for midterm exams in Nānākuli.


At a bank of computers downtown, one man prints his résumé after checking email online; another woman applies for a passport and signs up for a Photoshop course. A family is picking up three DVDs for the weekend and a couple of music CDs.


A handful of toddlers in Wai‘anae grab colorful scarves and dance, clap and jump to that Wiggles kids’ classic, “Shake Your Sillies Out.” Then the keiki settle in to listen to a reading of From Head to Toe, a favorite Eric Carle book.


You might think you’d stopped in at a coffee shop, community center or mommy-and-me class, but these scenes are playing out at 51 branches of the Hawai‘i State Public Library system across six islands.


“Libraries are about stories and stories are expressed in multiple ways,” says state librarian Stacey Aldrich. “There can be song, there can be dance, there can be theater; it really can be that meeting space that brings the community to gather around their stories.”


Last year, nearly 6 million books circulated among more than 946,000 registered Hawai‘i library cardholders, and librarians answered nearly 1.3 million questions, Aldrich says. The library system has a staff of more than 500 and an annual budget of around $40 million.


The repair and maintenance annual budget was $300,000 in 2015 when Aldrich started, and rose to $500,000 and $1 million in subsequent years.


Construction budget for the state system averages $6.4 million a year for repairs.


Special funds come from DVD rentals (declining as more people stream movies at home) and from overdue book fines and are used to buy new books.


Even the library website shows some sass where it once provided a just-the-facts-ma’am description of the collection: “You have questions. We have answers. We’re librarians. (It’s what we do.)”


READ ALSO: 12 Unique Aspects of Hawai‘i’s Libraries That You Might Not Know About


Computer access keeps growing as a tool. Each library provides free wireless internet to cardholders and many services don’t require a physical visit to a branch. You’re at a bookstore browsing and see a novel or cookbook you aren’t sure you want to buy—the library’s got an app for that. Download the app on your phone or tablet, scan the book’s barcode or QR code to find out if the library has any copies; if it does, you can reserve one. When the book is ready for pickup at the library of your choice, you’ll get an email. And you can do all of this on your phone.


“We keep trying to find ways to connect people to those things that are important to them in ways that are easier instead of having to really dig,” Aldrich says.


Nationwide, Americans express mostly positive views about their public libraries providing the resources they need, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study. Most folks go to the library to borrow printed books—it’s still the No. 1 reason to go there, according to the study—but people also value the library as a safe place to spend time.


Aldrich says that’s even more so here in Hawai‘i where people love libraries. She points to a stack of 600 letters sitting on her desk that she’s received from people asking for a library in Waikoloa on the west side of Hawai‘i Island.


And staff is listening to patron suggestions, as evidenced by a computer reminder that now goes out five days before a book is due rather than when it’s overdue, a secure website and hand sanitizers in all of their libraries, Aldrich says.


She adds that libraries try to create a positive place for everyone to share but acknowledges that some challenges are more prevalent now, such as  people with mental illness or who are running low on medication, including those who are homeless. “It’s all of our situation; these are our neighbors,” she says. “We don’t ask if you have a house. There are sometimes people who are stinky who have a house; there are people who act out who have a house,” Aldrich says.


“People are looking for community and the library is that place. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It doesn’t matter if you have a home. It doesn’t matter how old you are. We’re open to everyone. As long as you’re being good and not disturbing anyone else, you can be there. Where are those places in our community?”


And library staff provide resources that often help people get through transition times, whether they’re writing a résumé, applying for jobs, finding if they qualify for assistance or working on their next novel. It seems every library has a recovery story. Aldrich recalls learning of a couple living in their car on Maui while writing a book in the library. “It got published and they’re no longer living in their car,” she says.

  Nanakuli Library

Nānākuli signs are in Hawaiian and English, which other libraries will offer in the future.


Library’s Latest

In April, the newest library in the system—No. 51—opened in Nānākuli on a 3-acre site fronting Nānāikapono Elementary School, with resources to serve as a community hub. It’s a $15.5 million, 18,000-square-foot facility built with a Hawaiian-village theme and unique features that include: signs in both Hawaiian and English, a big meeting room that opens to a grassy amphitheater and a Lumi ‘Aukiō, recording-studio sound booth, so patrons will be able to record oral histories, music, podcasts and more.


Neighborhood board chair Cynthia Rezentes says the sound booth idea came directly from people in the community who wanted to make sure to record some of the rich oral histories of aging community members. “We’re losing so much information with the passing of the kūpuna,” she explains.


Until the inviting modern building opened, West Side residents would need to travel to Wai‘anae or Kapolei to check out materials, do research or meet. It’s just 7 miles in either direction but notoriously bad traffic means that route is often snarled.


The community waited decades for a library. Neighborhood board vice chair Richard Medeiros remembers writing a letter asking for a library when he was in elementary school at Nānāikapono. John Waihe‘e was the governor. “I was in second grade in 1991,” Medeiros says.


Nānākuli librarian Kelsey Faradineh is enjoying welcoming the community to the state-of-the-art branch and urges people to “come explore.”

  Kelsey Faradineh

Nānākuli librarian Kelsey Faradineh.


A Hawaiian immersion school visited in the opening weeks: “They were reading the signs and speaking Hawaiian,” she says, smiling. “It’s great we’re the first [to offer dual-language signage] since we’re a predominantly Native Hawaiian community.”


Students are also coming from nearby schools, including those who can use a sidewalk from Nānāikapono to the back of the library, built specifically so kids don’t have to walk along busy Farrington Highway.


On nights the library closes at 8, staffers see a routine developing: Commuters drop in from about 5 to borrow books and DVDs and enjoy some air conditioning after the long drive from town.


All 3,000 new books in the library are equipped with RFID tags so that you can scan your library card or app and set your stack of books or DVDs onto the self-checkout station, where the computer checks them all out at once. It’s one of seven libraries with some form of self-checkout and more will be added, Aldrich says.


One of those quick to scope out the new library was pre-med student Agabin, in her senior year at UH West O‘ahu. “I live right down the road,” she says. But she used to drive 10 miles to school to study. “This saves time, saves gas. It’s very accessible, makes you want to study more,” she says.


Rezentes sees the library as a resource to benefit the whole community, especially Native Hawaiians. “We need it for the critical thinking for future generations to be able to do their own research,” she says.


Rezentes says the library allows people the opportunity to immerse themselves in subjects, to go to the source to find out what happened before and who said what. And it offers other practical connections: “Not everybody has computers in their household. This is going to be a godsend to people. You can do your taxes in there, look for jobs.”


The next renovation being planned is the Liliha Public Library. The foundation is sinking and the façade cracked. Architect Stephen Oyakawa, who designed the library, was an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright. Opened in 1966, the distinctive building is the only one in the system with rooftop parking.

  Wai‘anae Public Library

A look at the crowded shelves of the Wai‘anae Public Library.


Adapting and Evolving

Aldrich was named state librarian by the Hawai‘i Board of Education in 2015. Earlier, she’d served as state librarian of California and worked in libraries in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Maryland. She grew up in a military family and is usually in the midst of a printed book, an e-book and an audiobook at any one time. She’s also learning Hawaiian on the free Mango language app.


Aldrich’s excitement about the libraries of today is contagious. Want to learn more about Paris neighborhoods? The library subscribes to PressReader, which allows patrons to read the French newspaper Le Monde in French or a translation. The database includes more than 7,000 newspapers and magazines worldwide.


Other databases available with a library card offer a variety of e-books and audiobooks to download without any waiting list or overdue fines.


The main library on King Street is the oldest library in the state, celebrating 105 years this past February, although its roots trace back even further. The Honolulu Library and Reading Room Association was formed in 1879 and supported by Hawaiian royalty including King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi‘olani. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie provided $100,000 toward construction of the original building once officials raised matching funds. Renovated twice since then, the Hawai‘i State Library is now 100,000 square feet.


The Big Island has the busiest library: “Hilo is crazy busy! They have seven book-drops in the front of the library and they are heavily used,” Aldrich says.


Tech help is also part of what modern libraries provide. Someone gets a Kindle for Christmas, they don’t call Amazon; they go into the library and ask how to download. “We have a lot of people who work from home and they’ll come to the library to use wi-fi and just to get out of their home and be around other humans,” Aldrich says.


Other people go to the library every day to read the newspapers. Families bring children to storytime every week to help them prepare for school. Having a library card also opens up a lot of information online: The website is packed with resources, fabulous factoids and practical info.


If you download the app on your phone or tablet, you never need to carry your library card; you can renew books, reserve books, find out about fines and more.


Wai‘anae librarian Sheryl Lynch enjoys showing off the library app, demonstrating how people can scan their cards and use their phones to check out and reserve books. “They’re astonished. It tells me when my books are due, too! People may forget to bring their library cards,” she says, “but when was the last time you left home without your phone?”


The Wai‘anae library was built in 1966 and the exterior looks a little drab since the sprinklers that water the greenery outside have been broken since May 2015, Lynch says. But inside the library, shelves are full and tidy, and the library is a busy one.


Clarinda Tivoli lives in Mā‘ili and tries to go to Toddler Time in Wai‘anae every week for her 3-year-old son, Bear Braun. Bear jumps in with the other keiki, singing, calling out colors, eager to try each activity. Children’s librarian Danielle Todd enjoys the chance to engage the little ones with bubbles, pillows and other props that get them excited about books. Bear’s baby brother is snuggled in Mom’s front carrier. “It’s a good introduction to reading,” Tivoli says. Though she was drawn to the library for the kids’ activities, she’s happy checking out more books for herself. “It opens me up to a larger variety of books that I wouldn’t be inclined to buy online,” she says.


Todd agrees, “It’s about learning and connection—it’s more than just books.”


Lynch proudly shows us the thick notebooks and typewritten card catalog that track what might be the state’s largest collection of original Hawaiian quilt patterns.


People visit from all over the world to trace the patterns, then go home and sew the intricate quilts. Recently, a group of students from Japan who had traced several patterns in 2011 returned to say thank you with a special gift: They donated a blue-and-white quilt they’d made with an angel’s trumpet design, their names embroidered on the back.


Students of Anne Fujiwara Clausen began the quilt in 2012, completed it the next year, displayed it at the Honolulu Festival in 2014, then in Tokyo at a quilt exhibit and in Yokohama last year. They say they returned the quilt to the Islands as a reminder that cultural sharing can tie people together while helping to perpetuate the art of Hawaiian quilting for future generations.


The Friends of the Wai‘anae Library help support the quilting, as do individuals who donate toward the $120-a-roll paper used to trace the patterns.


Many branches have unique specialties that can be found on the website. For example, people researching their Portuguese ancestors can find Portuguese ship manifests at the Honoka‘a Public Library on the Big Island’s Hāmākua Coast.

  The circulation desk at the Nānākuli Public Library, which opened in April.

The circulation desk at the Nānākuli Public Library, which opened in April.


Print vs. Digital    

When Aldrich meets people, regardless of age, many confess: “I love the physical book,” she says. Turns out people who stare at screens all day want to switch to paper for fun.


Others love the convenience of digital and tell her: “Ew, I can’t imagine reading another paper book. I have 10 books downloaded on my phone right now. Thank you so much!” (They can download up to 10 at a time.)


And e-books are gaining in popularity: from a low of about 8,000 downloads each month in 2012 to recent averages of around 43,000 a month in the past two years, with a peak of more than 46,000 in July 2017.


Modern library buying can get expensive. “When we buy a book, we get good deals because we buy in bulk, but we’re not just paying $20 for a book. We are also buying the e-book version.” One vendor might charge an additional fee after 26 checkouts, another after a year. “For one book, we can pay up to $100. If it’s a popular book, we’ll buy the audio, too.”


The book that the library records as most checked out is Arts & Crafts of Hawai‘i with 2,225 copies and a total of 18,804 checkouts between Jan. 17, 1983 until just before we went to print.  The book that disappears the most in the library is the Hawai‘i Drivers’ Manual, with 440 of 918 copies classified as lost, Aldrich says.


Community Hub

The Kahuku Public & School Library is one of 12 that serves both a school and the community.


The Ko‘olauloa Battle of the Books is an after-school, extracurricular program for North Shore students from first to sixth grade that’s similar to a TV quiz game show, where students answer questions to demonstrate their understanding of the books they read for the competition.


Kahuku librarian Tamara King organized the program at the suggestion of a community member who had loved a similar program as a child on the Mainland. She researched what other places had done, then worked with the community and schools to customize a program and include books about Hawai‘i and Polynesia.


“We just looked at their model and tweaked it, tweaked it, tweaked it until we got something we were happy with,” King says. “We’re the only ones on the island doing it with multiple schools.”


The teams are split into age groups and assigned 13 books to read; they study with volunteer coaches, then compete in an annual contest that has attracted 100 finalists from Sunset Beach, Kahuku, Ka‘a‘awa, Hau‘ula, Lā‘ie and home schools. It’s been held at Turtle Bay Resort and broadcast on ‘Ōlelo community TV.


King says the program taps into competition in a positive way that reaches beyond team sports: “Kids are groomed from very young to do well,” she says. “It’s a very humble community where not one person stands out. It’s working together with your peers.”


Excitement builds among the kids, the community and beyond. Kids take selfies with the books they are reading, King says. Volunteers start blogs and Amazon wish lists that help get grants and donations from all over the world from alumni and others; the money goes toward books, game buzzers and prizes.


She’s passionate about the community and the staff, as is library assistant Don Ramos. Born and raised in Kahuku, he remembers seeing the library being built when he was in third grade in 1968. He finished school, married and worked at the library, watching his own two daughters graduate. When not working the front desk, he’s recycling cardstock, cardboard and other materials to create a Keiki Castle, three-dimensional displays and other artwork that enriches the library as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. He even designed a version of the international library sign with Polynesian elements.


King credits school librarian Cecile Oshima for helping bring the library to life for students. She uses an app to learn Italian to better pronounce the character names in Romeo and Juliet.


Oshima created a popular scavenger hunt to teach middle schoolers about resources at the library that other families still ask about, King says.


King also points proudly to the Kahuku Cool Lab, a makerspace that includes games and gear that teach the basics of computer coding. Sewing machines and robotics tools are also available there for the community. “We’re all about building and making,” she says. “We’ve had 80-year-old men come in and learn to use a sewing machine.”


At 80, she’s as excited as ever to be learning something new daily. But she’s also worried about teachers who are primarily focused on improving test scores. “A lot of teachers are not sending their kids to the library; they say, ‘just Google it,’” she says.

  Kahuku Cool Lab

The Kahuku Cool Lab makerspace includes sewing machines, robotics and coding games.


O‘ahu’s Smallest Library

Tim Littlejohn has been the Waialua librarian for 21 years. Built in 1927 to serve the plantation community, the 3,000-square-foot library is the smallest on O‘ahu and the second-oldest on the island.


Littlejohn bursts with pride for his patrons, staff and community partners. “We have the best community,” he says. He helps farmers research soil contamination, beachcombers track the history of a glass ball and nurtures a growing interest in genealogy. “We’re book pushers and we advocate education and literacy and engagement and love of reading that will keep people entertained for years,” Littlejohn says. In 1997, the Public Library Association named Waialua “Best Small/Rural Library in America.”


Waialua children’s librarian Holly Braffet draws a packed house of more than 50 at Saturday storytime at Waialua, with parents and grandparents coming along. “People are rediscovering the value of books,” Braffet says, and the library offers book clubs, writing clubs and an encouraging place to drop by. “Especially with kids, you want to get them off of their screens,” she says.


Events can turn out great for more than the kids. Littlejohn recalls two single parents who met through Saturday storytime. He says the man eventually asked him to help propose by showing the woman a book where the man tore out pages to hide a ring. Littlejohn agreed to help, she said yes and the two married. But Littlejohn confesses that, in true librarian fashion, he couldn’t help asking the man: “Why are the pages missing?”


Julie Mansur ducked into the compact Waialua library to check out a few books before diving back into her busy life. “I only have this much free time and I spend it here,” she says. She’s been coming to the library for 37 years.

  Waialua Library

In 1997, Waialua Library was named Best Small/Rural Library in America.


What Should Be Next?

Aldrich sees the system as evolving to respond to what communities want. The challenge is keeping up with new technology and constantly improving services while also keeping up with aging facilities. Most of the furniture throughout the library system is circa 1940 to 1980.


A little more than half of the libraries have meeting rooms, often used by the community for a wide range of purposes, from book and knitting clubs to neighborhood board meetings. They could use a refresh, she says, with furniture that matches and is easy to move. “There aren’t a lot of public spaces where you have public meetings.”


And even the newest library is looking to evolve with the community. The Nānākuli library was planned with a business center, which is now a blank space while library staff find out more about what people want. Is it a place for coaching those starting a small business? Meeting spaces? A coworking space—with phones, computers, fax machines and printers—where people can do interviews or meetings via computer? “We feel it’s an opportunity to build with the community what that space should turn into,” Aldrich says.


Years ago, a plan developed to create one regional library for the Big Island’s sprawling Puna district. It would have replaced three libraries—Pāhoa, Mountain View and Kea‘au—with one. However, recent pre-eruption focus groups with all the communities made it very clear that one location wouldn’t work. “Pāhoa people don’t want to have to drive all the way to Kea‘au to go to the library. If we built it in Pāhoa, people from Kea‘au or Mountain View weren’t going to go to Pāhoa,” Aldrich says. New plans lean toward two libraries: one in Pāhoa, the other in Kea‘au/Mountain View.


Back at Kahuku, King says: “People tell me, so sad about libraries, and I say no, not sad. They’re not dying; they’re transforming.”


Aldrich agrees: “I think when it comes to the connecting, the collecting and the preserving, bringing people together, it really is about the human connection and I think libraries are about the human connection.”

Stacey Aldrich

State librarian Stacey Aldrich.


Friends of the Library provide big and small support

Want to get more involved at the library?


Every summer, the Friends of the Library of Hawai‘i hosts its big book sale at McKinley High School, with proceeds helping all the libraries. In library lingo, that group is called Big Friends, explains state librarian Stacey Aldrich.


Many individual libraries also have support groups, dubbed Little Friends, which raise money for home branches, while Big Friends raises money for the whole system, including summer reading and other statewide programs.


Many Little Friends groups run bookstores or sections of their neighborhood libraries that sell donated books and help raise money for programs and physical improvements. “The friends are amazing,” Aldrich says. “They will weed, they will paint. Kailua has a bookstore, Kāne‘ohe has a bookstore, Hawai‘i Kai has a bookstore,” all volunteer run.


Maui has a Little Friends group that supports the whole county in a big way, running three bookstores as well as helping to buy a modern bookmobile that drives to rural communities and schools. Aldrich describes the Holoholo Bookmobile as “amazing”; it carries 3,000 books, features an awning that creates an inviting outdoor space and has wi-fi. “People can hang out and read and go into the bookmobile,” she says.


Aldrich sees potential in other mobile services even though the rest of the system largely abandoned bookmobiles in the 1990s. (Books can be returned to any library in the state.)


“We’re thinking, can we do more pop-up library services,” she says, “where people can order things and have them delivered and then have wi-fi and programs and still meet the needs of the community without having to build buildings.”




The libraries partner with PBS Hawai‘i on The Great American Read, which kicked off in May. The project highlights 100 books and encourages people to read the selections, check them off and vote for America’s best-loved book. The series continues in September, with an Oct. 23 finale including a countdown of the top 10.