The much-loved Makiki Community Library, a gathering place for generations, is gone for good.

The aging volunteers who had staffed the unique 42-year-old library, known for its rich menu of children’s programs, warned city and state officials repeatedly in recent years that they were running out of money and energy.

Last summer, they abruptly closed the doors.

City and state officials and lawmakers had repeatedly assured the Makiki/Lower Punchbowl/Tantalus Neighborhood Board and area residents that there was a plan in the works to save the library and make it even better by turning over the city-owned structure to the state public library system to make it a branch library.

Makiki Library Building.
The former “People’s Library,” once a popular community gathering spot, now sits empty. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

That would have given the facility, once known as the “People’s Library,” the expanded electronic resources that library patrons want and need today.

Those assurances, delivered one by one over more than 18 months, proved to be empty promises.

No Funds For A State Takeover

This week, in response to questions from Civil Beat, state and city officials acknowledged they had decided against taking measures to preserve the library.

City officials said that although they were “supportive of the library concept,” they would instead convert the building on Keeaumoku Street at Makiki District Park into recreational facilities for youth.

“We plan on using the facility for our popular Makiki District Park Summer Fun program,” Nathan Serota, spokesman for the city Department of Parks and Recreation, said in an email.

A number of lawmakers blamed Mayor Kirk Caldwell and city parks department officials for the failure to come to terms with the state on the property, but state officials were also turning cool on the prospect of acquiring the building for a new state library branch.

Mallory Fujitani, special assistant to the state librarian, said that state officials were told in 2017 that it would cost $12 million to renovate and upgrade the building, more than it would cost to build a new library. But there’s no money for a new building, either, she said.

“At this point we don’t have the resources to look at building a new library there,” Fujitani said.

“It’s not like we’re not sympathetic and we have empathy that communities want more libraries, it’s just that we have a lot of hard choices to make,” she said.

The state library system has a $150 million backlog of renovations needed for its existing network of 51 libraries, half of which are more than 50 years old, Fujitani said.

Makiki Community Library with kids section and nonfiction upstairs.
The volunteer-run Makiki Community Library was known for a welcoming array of children’s programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Makiki Community Library was a unique city and community venture founded amid the grassroots political activism of the 1970s. As the Makiki area grew denser, residents asked for a library. But the state government decided instead to build one at McCully, about a mile away.

Former Mayor Frank Fasi joined library advocates in pushing for a small city library to be located at Makiki District Park, in a building owned by the city. The library was supported by donations and operated by a volunteer staff, except for one part-time employee. The building was renovated in the late-1990s and again in 2007, both times with government funding.

It contained a unique collection of books, all donated, and hosted a number of children’s programs. It also served as the meeting site for a group of mystery writers known as Sisters in Crime, local authors who participated in events at the library and displayed their books there.

Karlen Ross moved to Makiki from Hawaii Kai in 2017 and he and his 3-year-old daughter quickly became library regulars.

“It had a great children’s section and it became a ritual to go to the playground and then go check out a book on the way home,” Ross said.

Vicki White, president of the Hawaii chapter of Sisters In Crime, said the Makiki library meeting place aided the group’s growth and helped it draw readers.

“We’re authors, we’re into books,” White said. “It was a place where people interested in books would come.”

Premature Shutdown?

Hawaii has the only state-run library system in the country. Makiki Community Library wasn’t part of that system and for years, it flourished.

But times changed and volunteers began warning that it was becoming too difficult to operate a library, even one with limited hours, on donations from library patrons and membership fees. At community forums, members of the board of the nonprofit Friends of Makiki Community Library told residents that the group was running out of money, according to news reports.

The library’s future was discussed regularly at meetings of the neighborhood board, which meets in a building adjacent to the library, and lawmakers were eager to show they were making progress toward retaining the library.

Makiki Community Library sign.
The volunteer-run library had been trying to join the state library system for several years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We would like to hasten the transition from Friends of the Makiki Library. They’ve done a great job,” said City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, at a board meeting in February 2018.

The next month, she told the board that Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi had introduced a resolution in support of a lease agreement that would transfer the building from the city to the state.

In April, Kobayashi told board members the council had approved the resolution, “so we can move forward.” She said that the city had committed to having the lease agreement completed by October 2017, more than six months earlier, and that she was asking that it be transmitted to the state.

A month later, Tom Heinrich, a legislative assistant to Sen. Brian Taniguchi, informed the board that Taniguchi and Rep. Della Au Belatti had secured $3.5 million in state funding for renovation work so that the transfer from city to state control could proceed.

But Heinrich also raised a concern, noting that “we are still behind schedule with the City and County executing the lease for that facility from the city through the Department of Parks and Recreation.”

But last summer, even progress seemingly being made, the library’s board decided to shut the facility and give away all the books.

“They got rid of the books over here, they dumped them and they gave them away,” said Sam Mitchell, a neighborhood board member.

Wendy Maxwell, a former president of the Friends of the Makiki Community Library, said that the board had been hopeful that the state would take over the city-owned building and finalize the transition, but after waiting for a long time, they had become overwhelmed by health issues, the needs of aging parents and decisions over where to move in their own elder years, and could no longer keep it going.

She said the library needed $20,000 a year to continue but didn’t have the money.

Makiki Community Library has about 18,000 books.
The Makiki Community Library’s 18,000 books were sold, given away or thrown away. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Maxwell said they gave away all the shelving and books, offering them first to public schools, then to libraries, then to the public and finally to the Friends of the Library of Hawaii, the group that supports the Hawaii state library system.

The organization received 100 to 150 boxes of books that were being discarded, said Nainoa Mau, executive director of the nonprofit group. He said there were so many that it took two to three days to collect them.

“Their library had a lot of nice, good books,” he said.

He found the library’s closure troubling.

“It’s not normal to see a library close like that,” he said.

The Friends of the Makiki library website has been shut down and its phone has been disconnected.

“It was sad, very sad,” Maxwell said.

Harold Burger, a Makiki Library volunteer, told the neighborhood board last July that the library had been forced to close without specific plans for its future because of “some dispute” between the city parks department and the state library “concerning the use of the building.”

The Aftermath

The neighborhood board had submitted several resolutions expressing strong support for the library but board chairman John Steelquist seemed to take the news of the closure with passive acceptance, while other members did not want to see the matter put to rest.

At the next meeting, board member Ian Ross asked whether the board’s resolutions on behalf of the library had been circulated to government officials. It became apparent they had not been, for reasons that were not explained at the meeting.

There was discussion about how the board should communicate community concern about the library, as well as other local issues, making it clear that the board had no real system in place for making its views known to government officials. (The board’s communication problems came up again at its April meeting.)

Despite the library’s closure, Heinrich was back before the board in November 2018, updating state funding possibilities but also telling the board “the difficulties have been lack of coordination between the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Design and Construction and several other departments at the city level.”

In February, Kobayashi acknowledged that the city had been the primary roadblock to keeping the library alive, and that the city administrators had declined to share information about it with the City Council.

“The lease agreement was supposed to have been completed by October 2017,” she told the board. “We were told the city completed the lease agreement in August of 2017 … We asked to see a copy of the lease. So far we haven’t seen the lease.”

She told Makiki residents that if they wanted to know what had happened, they should ask Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Managing Director Roy Amemiya or Michele Nekota, director of the parks department.

The problems from the perspective of the state library came to light only in April, when Michelle Daigle, an assistant to state Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, told the board that the building was “in considerable disrepair,” and that it would cost too much to fix it.

This was information that the state library had been given in 2017.

Daigle told the Makiki board members that they might have a shot at getting a bookmobile someday, a disappointment for a community that been told its longtime library was going to be upgraded, not discarded.

Before the May meeting, board members waited expectantly for an explanation of what had occurred from the state librarian, Stacey Aldrich, and Nekota of the city parks and recreation department. The two women were announced on the board meeting agenda as coming to address the issue.

Neither showed up.

This week, spokespeople for the state librarian and parks department both said that they had never received an invitation to address the Makiki board.

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