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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 18, 2002

'People's Library' still thriving in Makiki

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Makiki Library has no library cards; the volunteer staff probably knows your name anyway. And if you just can't bear to part with the latest book you borrowed, chances are you can buy it — cheap.

Nancy Nott, the lone librarian at the "People's Library" in Makiki, suggests people do research at service-oriented, state-run institutions but has a soft spot for the donated collection's old-time flavor.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Welcome to a grassroots "People's Library."

A sign on the front door sums up the facility's unique position:

"It is not a state library. It is a recreational reading library, made up mostly of donated books."

Nearly 25 years ago, the Makiki area found itself in much the same situation that today faces Kapolei, where controversy has erupted over the state librarian's insistence on adequate financing and a proper collection rather than opening on a limited basis using donated books, as favored by some residents.

Long promised a library but facing even more waiting, Makiki residents in 1978 finally got fed up and started their own facility, in Makiki Park at the former Hawaiian Sugar Planter's Association experiment station.

Today, Makiki Library is thriving and happily set in its ways, though there are drawbacks to going it alone, said Norma Jean Nicholl, volunteer president of the board of the Friends of Makiki Library.

It's an old-fashioned place with an atmosphere that's friendly and relaxed — the sort of place "where everybody knows your name," she said. It is operated by volunteers and one part-time librarian.

The facility serves about 1,200 people per month. It is open just 23 hours per week, compared with about 40 hours at similar-sized state facilities. Makiki's collection includes fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, mystery, romance, children's books, young adults, reference, magazines and periodicals as well as large-print titles, a large Hawaiiana collection and books and magazines in Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

In May, the library also began offering computer and Internet access to the public thanks to $25,000 from the state Legislature.

The library has an operating budget of around $1,000 a month and was supported by the City and County of Honolulu until financing was withdrawn in 1995. Since then, Makiki Library has operated exclusively through private donations of money and books.

"Without volunteers and those who donate books and videos, we couldn't exist," Nicholl said.

But there is a downside, she said. The building is old and has no air-conditioning. The library is not part of any inter-library loan system. Its 15,000-book collection is not catalogued. And although the library has always managed to survive, more than once it has been on the financial brink.

Makiki Library, a grassroots effort born in 1978, grew from a situation comparable to Kapolei Library's current predicament.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Among the positive things that have happened at the library, Nicholl said, was the hiring of a professionally trained librarian two years ago.

Before becoming the Makiki librarian, Nancy Nott spent 30 years with the state library system. She said the Makiki Library is a convenient walk-in reading room for area residents who can borrow books for up to three weeks and renew them with a telephone call.

Nott has an obvious affection for the location's old-time library flavor. But she said people shouldn't confuse it with a contemporary service-oriented library.

"The collection isn't very balanced because it's just made up of what happens to come in," she said. "You can't really do in-depth reference service because we don't have the money to buy current materials. We don't even have a book budget. I tell people who are doing homework to also go to another library that has more resources."

As for Kapolei, Nott said there could be a risk in establishing a library there that is operated by volunteers.

"The concern is if the community does it themselves, then the Legislature might just say, 'They're doing fine without our support,' " she said.

Tim Littlejohn is librarian at the Waialua Public Library, a small, rural library roughly the same size as the Makiki Library — but with one giant difference. Because it is part of the statewide system, Littlejohn's library has nearly 4 million books at its disposal.

Thus, if someone comes in looking for a second edition of Jane's Warship Recognition Guide and Littlejohn sees from his computer check that there's an available copy in, say, Hilo, the book will be delivered to his library within a day or two. His library also has access to numerous databases and service programs offered through the statewide system.

That's part of what gives his facility, recognized by the American Library Association as the best rural library in the nation in the 1997, its winning edge, he said. Like Lowell, Littlejohn believes it takes trained professionals to run a library efficiently.

"We love our volunteers," he said. "But just as a lawyer goes to school to study law, or a doctor goes to school to study medicine, a librarian goes to school to study librarianship and the field of information science — which is not limited to just books."

Ever since state librarian Virginia Lowell refused to accept donated books to stock the shelves of the new Kapolei Library — which has a new, $6.5 million building but no budget for books — she has been both lauded and lambasted for her action.

Some commend Lowell, who heads the only statewide library system in the country, for insisting she won't open the library until the state Legislature forks over nearly $2 million for a 60,000-book collection and 24 professional staffers.

Carole Fiore, a professional library consultant and president of the American Library Association's division of children's library services, said Lowell is correct in demanding that a modern library be run by trained experts.

"A professional librarian has the vision to look to the future and help design a library service that meets community needs," said Fiore, who says the role of a skilled librarian is to guide partons quickly and expertly to information they need, be it from books, on the Internet or obscure electronic data banks.

But others accuse Lowell of having an elitist attitude and holding the Kapolei Library hostage until the Legislature gives her what she wants. They say if the state can't afford to pay for Kapolei Library, it could function just fine on donated books and volunteer workers.

"What's wrong with having a book like this for the kids to read until the money comes?" asked resident Herman Young, holding up a rejected Kapolei donation written by Charles Dickens.

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.