Jeff Keeler of Colorado visits his daughter and granddaughter on Oahu three times a year for several weeks at a time.

One of his favorite places to spend time with his granddaughter is a small building near the corner of Keeaumoku Street and Wilder Avenue — the Makiki Community Library — one of the area’s best-kept secrets.

“The staff is friendly, it’s in walking distance, and it’s a great place to read the newspaper,” Keeler said.

He is one of hundreds of patrons who enjoy this unusual public library run almost entirely by volunteers.

Now there’s a move afoot to operate it with state funding. But it’s a city-owned building, and the volunteers and state officials alike are frustrated with how long it’s taking the city to put together a lease document for an agreement that already seems to have city backing.

Makiki Community Library has about 18,000 books.
The Makiki Community Library has a collection of about 18,000 volumes lining its shelves. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The People’s Library

Established in the 1970s with the help of then-Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi and then-state Rep. Neil Abercrombie, this is the only public library in Hawaii that isn’t funded by the state.

It’s located in one of several city-owned properties in Makiki District Park, formerly a research center for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association.

“Back in the early ’70s when Makiki was transitioning from a mostly agricultural and single family home area to what it is now, Fasi and Abercrombie wanted the state to open up a library in Makiki — (the state) chose McCully instead,” said Harold Burger, a volunteer at the library.

In response, Fasi and Abercrombie teamed up in 1976 to push for a smaller community library in Makiki that would be operated by the city.

Burger says that in the years after Fasi resigned as mayor and Abercrombie left the Legislature, the building fell into disrepair. That prompted the Friends of Makiki Community Library, the nonprofit group that runs it, to mobilize and turn the little library into a nonprofit.

The library was closed from 1996 to 1999 while the building was updated using $100,000 in federal funds that Abercrombie, by then a congressman, helped obtain. The upgrades included new windows, a fire escape and better accessibility to the mezzanine.

The Makiki Community Library is run almost entirely by volunteers, who the library solicits through craigslist. They organize the books, welcome visitors and keep the place clean.

“Everyone who works here is a volunteer except one person (the librarian) who is a part-time paid employee that was required by the city,” said Burger, who has been volunteering with the library for seven years. 

Maikiki Library open sign for Olivia's story.
The Makiki Community Library has closed and reopened twice in its 41-year history. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Financial Woes

In 2007, the library fell into financial trouble again and had to close due to structural neglect.

It reopened in 2009 after then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann had it renovated.

Hannemann told Civil Beat on Friday that, because the city is not in the business of running libraries, he agreed to renovate the building in an attempt to “make good on what Fasi was trying to do” with the project.

“Basically, libraries are not a city-run enterprise,” said Hannemann. “I think that the whole intention was not to operate (the library) but to eventually turn it over to the state.

Since taking the nonprofit approach to running the library in the ’90s, board members have made several concessions to keep it afloat.

It’s currently open only three days for 12 hours a week and relies on book donations to keep its shelves stocked.

“We have a very small group of folks who devote their time and energy to this library,” — Suzanne Ivey, treasurer of the Friends of the Makiki Community Library

The library allows card carriers to check out books for up to four weeks at a time, but since it operates as a nonprofit, it’s unable to collect late fees or fine patrons if a book is damaged.

“We have a very small group of folks who devote their time and energy to this library,” said Suzanne Ivey, treasurer of the Friends of the Makiki Community Library board. “We even tap our friends to keep this going. My sister in Chicago will send a check down once a year,” Ivey said. 

Vying For State Support

Library supporters have long sought to see it become a state-owned facility.

In 2013, Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui released $250,000 in general obligation funds that  were used to hire local contracting firm SSFM International to conduct a search for potential library sites in the area, and a needs assessment for the city-owned building.

The firm determined there were no other suitable buildings in the area for a public library.

“(The needs assessment) was delayed for a long time because the city needed to grant us permission to survey the place,” said Dean Uchida, project manager for the Makiki Library planning project.

Since then, the state has requested that the city draw up a long-term lease agreement.

“With the money we raised this year, we have enough to run this library for exactly one more year,” Ivey said. Our costs keep going up, which is why we were so hopeful about the plan to hand it over to the state.”

Stacey Aldrich, the Hawaii state librarian, said that transition can’t begin until the city draws up a memorandum of agreement for the state to sign.

“Back in September, Wendy (Maxwell, the president of the board) and I met with the city and after that meeting we expected the lease to be signed, sealed and delivered by October,” Ivey said. “Now it’s December.”

Makiki Community Library sign.
Supporters of the Makiki Community Library have pushed for it to join the state library system for several years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A Frustrating Wait

The proposal calls for the state to take over the library property, fund its improvements, and add 30 to 36 parking stalls at Makiki District Park.

Keith Fujio, special assistant to the state librarian, said the parking stalls would improve traffic flow in a heavily used, heavily congested area.

“I don’t see the downside for the city, we’re taking this building off your hands, making it up to code and updating it,” Fujio said. “It’s very surprising that they’re so slow in responding and getting a draft to us.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s managing director, Roy Amemiya was not available for an interview, but issued this statement:

The City and the State are in ongoing negotiations to turn over the community library at Makiki District Park over to the State Library System. The City and the State agree that the property would better serve the community as an official public library in the State Library system, and we are fine-tuning the details with the various organizations involved as to how this transition will take place.

At the end of the 2016 legislative session, state Sen. Brian Taniguchi and Rep. Della Au Belatti helped secure $1 million for a library redesign, once ownership trades hands.

I’m hoping that the negotiations are fruitful because it would be a great opportunity for the community,” said Belatti whose district includes Makiki, McCully and Tantalus. “This is an opportunity to improve the library and the parking in that area.”

A state takeover would give the Makiki community access to the state library system’s network of books and other resources, and allow it to expand its operating hours.

Makiki Community Library with kids section and nonfiction upstairs.
The Makiki Community Library is the only public library in Hawaii that isn’t funded by the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ambitious Plans

The Hawaii State Librarian’s office and members of the Legislature have big plans for the future of the Makiki Community Library.

“We’re not going to do a  regular sit down with thousands of books kind of library  — it’ll be high tech and hopefully we’ll have more room for computers,” said Sen. Taniguchi, whose district includes Makiki, Punchbowl and Papakolea.

“We really want to make it a vibrant community space that has upgraded technology,” said  Stacey Aldrich, the state librarian.

“We have a Korean book collection that was donated by the Moon family that we would love to move to the Makiki location,” Aldrich said referring to Eugene and Sook Ki Moon, a Korean couple who pledged a $1 million endowment to bolster Korean language book options in the state library system.

The volunteers keeping Makiki Community Library afloat are anxious for the changeover.

Ivey, the library board treasurer, said she was taking a walk when she first happened upon the library and immediately felt that it was a venture worth getting involved with.

“This is a very dense community with a lot of children and a lot of need,” Ivey said. “If you don’t have a car, it’s a long walk to downtown or Manoa. I’m a reader and I believe that everyone should have access to books.”

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