When Diane Mokuau became the librarian at Maunaloa Elementary School in 1998, she was one of five public school librarians on Molokai with an advanced degree and specialized training to curate books, collaborate with teachers on special projects and help teach kids vital research skills. 

Three years ago, with the island down to just two certified school librarians — and both of those librarians also juggling other roles on their campuses — Mokuau decided she had to do something to help fill in the gaps. 

Mokuau, who is currently the librarian at Molokai High School, helped create a group that brings together everyone working with libraries on the island. The Molokai Library Services Cadre helps select new books for school libraries without a trained librarian, collaborates on programming across the island and even obtained a grant to digitize local historical materials. 

The extraordinary volunteer effort is a scrappy response to a troubling trend across Hawaii. 

Members of the Molokai Library Services Cadre help support all the libraries on the island by collaborating on special projects and sharing knowledge. Courtesy: Diane Mokuau

In 2012, the state Department of Education employed 192 school librarians. Today there are only 84 — a massive drop in a state that until 2004 required all of its public schools — more than 250 at the time — to employ at least one full time librarian. 

Roughly one in three schools on Oahu has a librarian. Only one in 13 do on the Big Island.

Many of the remaining school librarians are now also tasked with other jobs outside of the library. Mokuau is the curriculum coordinator and accreditation chair for her campus. She also helps oversee library services for the middle school, which shares facilities with the high school. 

The problem is particularly pronounced in rural areas where the public library system is also experiencing staffing shortages, further reducing the opportunity for kids to interact with a librarian. 

And it comes at a time of heightened misinformation online, when students perhaps most need help with the research and digital literacy skills that librarians teach. 

“It’s really, really sad,” Mokuau said.

A Misunderstood Role

School librarians in Hawaii are certified teachers who also hold a master’s degree in library science, a combination that makes them uniquely qualified to collaborate with classroom teachers on lesson plans, provide students with training in research and teach digital literacy. 

The number of librarians in the state began to shrink after the passage of Act 51, also known as the  Reinventing Education Act, in 2004. The legislation gave principals more local control over school budgets and eliminated a requirement that every school have a full-time librarian.

Multiple studies over the last two decades have shown that having trained librarians in schools improves students’ test scores, increases student participation in libraries and can contribute to having larger and newer book collections.

But librarians say they often run up against a perception that their job is simply checking out books and organizing bookshelves — something anyone in the school could do. 

Sometimes even principals don’t know what school librarians offer teachers and students. 

Members of the Hawaii Association of School Librarians have been increasingly focused on trying to better advocate for themselves — and get parents and teachers to advocate on their behalf. 

“What can we do so that at the school level they recognize that there’s a need for us? And that the things that we’re already doing go away if there is no librarian at the school,” said Danielle Fujii, the librarian at Kalaheo High School on Oahu and a former president of the association. 

The state Department of Education tries to support schools without a certified librarian by offering training resources to whatever teacher or volunteer may be filling that role. It also organizes an annual library services conference and works to get discounts and bundle together online services for libraries to make it easier for schools to set up an e-book collection, said Joanna Dunn, the department’s educational specialist who supports the Library and Media Services programs in schools.

The DOE is also running a virtual librarian pilot program this year with five schools on the Big Island to bolster library services and provide support to classroom teachers.

Map of schools on Oahu
Map of public schools on Oahu that have librarians or library assistants. View the neighbor island map 

At Campbell High School, Sandy Park used to hold a freshman orientation for more than 900 students at the start of the year, using games like a scavenger hunt to help kids learn what was available to them in the library. 

Park, who was the librarian at the Ewa Beach school for more than two decades, said she could tell the difference between freshmen who came from middle schools with a librarian and those who had not. Some of those students struggled to put together a basic bibliography for a research paper. 

“I think you’re losing a lot of the higher thinking skills, because the kids aren’t learning how to do their own research,” Park said. 

Park retired in 2020 and has not been replaced. The state’s largest high school is now relying on a library assistant to meet the needs of more than 3,000 students. 

Campbell’s library is unusual in that it is one of a dozen locations in Hawaii where a public library and school library share the same space. Campbell’s principal Jon Henry Lee said in an email that because there is a branch manager and librarian at the public library — and because the high school has limited access and jurisdiction over the facilities — it was determined that the school library only needs a library assistant, a clerical position that does not require a college degree. 

Ewa Beach Public Library Lot
The Ewa Beach Public and School Library at Campbell High School is one of a dozen locations in the state where public and school libraries share the same facilities. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

But when Park started at Campbell, the school had two full-time librarians, and a library assistant — in addition to the librarians who work for the public library. During the last few years, Park and the school library assistant hosted between 25 and 79 class visits to the library and interacted with more than 1,000 students each month. 

On Molokai, Mokuau found that school staff assigned to a library who didn’t have that advanced training were often hesitant to remove books from the library or order new ones. 

The same books that are energizing students in her campus library — books that are better reflective of the school’s diversity and address issues that society is grappling with today — are the ones that many people are nervous to order if they don’t have a librarian’s training.

But, even though she is finding time to refresh the high school’s collection, Mokuau said her split duties at the school still leave her stretched.

“I wish I had the time to talk to the students and find out you know, what do you want? What do you need?” Mokuau said. “When kids come back, they’re so ready to be in the library. So ready to find good books, you know, talk about books …  I just wish I had more time for that.”

Stretched For Staff

School libraries, college libraries and public libraries are all part of one ecosystem, said State Librarian Stacey Aldrich. 

But that ecosystem is under stress. 

At the same time that school librarians are disappearing from campuses, the state’s public library system is understaffed by 26% and is struggling to maintain hours already truncated in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This means fewer opportunities for public libraries to help address the gaps created by the lack of school librarians.  

Two of the four public libraries on Maui are currently closed. The Hana library — which is also a combo school and public library — has been closed for months because of a lack of staff. Hana High School does not have its own certified librarian. 

The Kahului Public Library closed for renovations in 2020. It was supposed to reopen last year, but the construction timeline has been impacted by the pandemic and there is no date yet for when it will reopen, Aldrich said.

McKinley High School's Daniel Inouye Library located on the second floor of this building.. A view of computers in foreground with many rows of books.
McKinley High School is one of the few public schools in the state to have both a librarian and a library assistant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Other public libraries frequently are open for only six hours a day, with many unable to open on the weekend or on more than one evening. Irregular or limited hours is a frequent topic of concern among community members, said Nainoa Mau, executive director of Friends of the Library of Hawaii

“We know it’s a challenge when our libraries aren’t available, but we’re doing the best we can to try to step up and make sure that (people) have access,” Aldrich said.

Compared to public library systems in other states, the public library system is also underfunded, Aldrich says. King County Library System in Washington is of a comparable size to the Hawaii State Public Library System, and has more than 800 library positions for 49 locations, Aldrich said. Hawaii would have 563 if it was fully staffed. 

When Aldrich arrived in Hawaii, the public library system had no annual budget for materials and relied entirely on late fees to purchase new books. Today, it has an annual budget of $1.5 million, but Aldrich believes the system needs closer to $5 million a year to keep materials clean and fresh, to have enough copies and to provide digital services.

The public library system is trying to do more to provide digital literacy training and move into new community services like a pilot program to help people access telehealth services. In that way, the public libraries face some of the same challenges that the school libraries do: communicating the message to people that libraries are so much more than a place to borrow books.

“Libraries level the playing field,” Aldrich said.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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