Catherine Toth Fox: We've Been Escaping Reality At Hawaii Public Libraries For 150 Years - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The state’s libraries have a fascinating history that started with the kingdom and boomed through the pandemic.

Before my son could legibly write his name — before he could even read on his own — he had a library card.

He treasures that red plastic card like it’s one of Mom’s magical credit cards, carrying it proudly into the library on Saturday mornings with the knowledge he can take home whatever books he wants. (And, recently, he found out there wasn’t any limit on the number of books he could borrow though I cap it at 10.)

Libraries have long been special places to me, where, as a kid, I escaped into the worlds of Nancy Drew, Ramona Quimby and the mystery-solving duo of Hawkeye Collins and Amy Adams. They were safe, quiet and comfortable spaces, where I could abandon all social niceties with strangers and just simply read a book.

Now my 6-year-old son looks forward to our bimonthly trips to the neighborhood library, hunting for the next installment of “The Bad Guys” or “Dragon Masters” or anything related to Pokemon. He loves chatting up the librarians and playing whatever scavenger hunt or coloring game they have for the kids. It melts my nerdy heart.

This is National Libraries Week, an annual celebration by the American Library Association to highlight the valuable roles libraries and librarians play in strengthening our communities and encouraging more people to read — and love reading.

Hawaii’s libraries have a fascinating history. The root of Hawaii’s public libraries dates back to 1875, when the Reciprocity Treaty between the Kindgom of Hawaii and the United States was signed, allowing free trade between the two nations.

Books were donated to the library by Queen Emma. (Courtesy: Hawaii State Public Library System)
Some 600 books were donated to the library in 1885 by Queen Emma. (Courtesy: Hawaii State Public Library System)

Sugar plantations started and Hawaii’s economy boomed. Many plantation workers spent their time — and money — in saloons, which didn’t sit well with businessmen and officials who held strong Protestant beliefs.

So, in 1879, the Honolulu Library and Reading Room opened above a furniture store on Fort Street in downtown. Members paid $1 to join, with monthly dues of 50 cents. After much fundraising, it moved to its own two-story building on the corner of Hotel and Alakea streets. Hawaiian royalty, including King Kalakaua, Queen Kapiolani and Queen Emma, contributed to its book collection.

In 1913 the first public library in Hawaii opened — it’s now the Hawaii State Library in downtown, the flagship of the state’s library system. It opened with 30,000 books in its collection. (Some of Queen Emma’s books — she bequeathed her private library of about 600 books in 1885 — can still be found here.)

At the time, according to information provided by the Hawaii State Public Library System, 70% of Hawaii’s population lived in rural areas, so providing books to the entire territory was incredibly difficult.

The library distributed books through “stations” set up in schools, at sugar plantations and in public buildings like banks and community centers. Private libraries — like the Hilo Library and the Maui Library Association — started but lacked funding.

Landon Fox, 6, reads at the Aina Haina Public Library.
Landon Fox, 6, reads at the Aina Haina Public Library. (Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat/2023)

By the 1920s branch libraries began opening, meeting the public demand for library services. Kaimuki was the first branch to open in 1928 on Waialae Road. In 1935 another opened in Palama Settlement. Two years later Waikiki Library opened in a small cottage.

Today, the HSPLS is the only statewide public library system in the U.S. — others are run by counties — with 51 branches on six islands. Its current general fund operating budget for fiscal year 2023 is $37 million, which supports more than 560 library positions. That’s almost half the budget of the Washington, D.C., Public Library, which operates just 26 branches.

The cost to run libraries — in Hawaii and elsewhere — is growing. Libraries buy both physical and digital copies of books — and e-books, which are growing in demand, aren’t cheap, says Mallory Fujitani, HSPLS spokesperson.

During the pandemic, for example, Hawaii libraries saw more than 1 million downloads of e-books, “and that trend seems to be continuing,” Fujitani says.

Publishers charge libraries higher fees for e-books, presumably because they want people to buy the actual book rather than check them out from the library. Most e-books come with a licensing fee, often with a checkout limit. Meaning if the library gets a copy of an e-book for $65, once that checkout limit is met, it must pay another $65 to continue to provide access to that title.

It’s not a sustainable model for libraries. Fines and fees have been used to purchase books and other materials for the library. In fact, up until eight years ago, it was the only funding they had, Fujitani says.

Since then, though, the state has increased funding from literally zero to $1.5 million now to support collections. Ultimately, libraries want to eliminate fines and fees for children because, Fujitani adds, “it creates a barrier for use for individuals and families in our communities.”

In addition to growing its digital offerings, HSPLS is looking to build two new libraries on Hawaii island — one in Keaau-Mountain View and another in Waikoloa. And it’s always looking for new ways to engage and inspire its patrons, from its online music classes through ArtistWorks to interactive e-books for kids to its updated app that allows users to check out books on their phones.

So what can we do to support libraries?

Visit them. Check out a book or two. Donate books to the Friends of the Library of Hawaii. Volunteer at your neighborhood branch.

Supporting Hawaii’s libraries is supporting literacy, workforce development, STEM education, the preservation of historical and cultural materials, and, ultimately, the access to knowledge and information.

What could be more noble than that?

Read this next:

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Don’t forget the Friends of the Libraries of Hawaii, a venerable organization raising money for all Hawaii public libraries. You can donate used books for resale through their bookstore in Ward Village, on line and in periodic big sales, like one in June. Old Pier One store has replaced McKinley H.S. Cafeteria. Join FLH as a member or volunteer. And shop for donated books at very low prices.

Pilialoha1846 · 4 months ago

I grew up in the 60's and 70's and was a regular visitor to the State Public Libraries every weekend and I know that it has made a big impact to my life. I escaped to another place and time at times reading sci-fi fiction. I also did a lot of research through high school and college. Now that is in the past and I read online now but I admire my wife who visits the library weekly and finishes a new novel every two days. it's refreshing to know that the library has adapted to modern times to offer something for everyone.

Westocohfd · 4 months ago

the hawai'i state library system is the best thing that our state government does. mahalo nui to all of the wonderful libraries and all of the wonderful folks that make them happen!!!

hawi · 4 months ago

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