The Little Library that Could

The aloha spirit keeps a volunteer-run library alive

March 7, 2011


Inspiring libraries are often the ones with big budgets. They have impressive buildings, enormous collections, and large staffs. The Makiki Community Library in Honolulu, Hawaii, has none of these things, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. This small donations-based, volunteer-driven organization effectively executes its deep-seated mission of engaging the community.

In the 1940s, the library was constructed as a research center supporting the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. In the 1970s, the land was turned over to the city and the community requested that the space become a branch of the state library system. Due to political disagreements, the building was transferred instead to the City and County Department of Parks and Recreation. As funding diminished in the 1990s, the library officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, run by a dedicated group of volunteers.

The Friends of Makiki Community Library is the governing body that oversees operations. The current president is retired librarian Wendy Maxwell. She manages more than 40 volunteers who do everything from curating collections and teaching classes to writing grants and cleaning bathrooms.

MCL excels at outreach. Recent events included family movie nights, astronomy viewings, poetry slams, music performances, language and computer classes, and workshops on civic processes. While many libraries host similar programs, what’s amazing about MCL is that it is volunteer-driven. The community bonds together, exhibiting the “aloha spirit” to keep the library alive.

The library is a platform for community improvement. For example, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, library volunteers organized service activities that brought together students and residents to paint over graffiti, pick up litter in the parks, and run a food drive.

Raising money is particularly challenging. Since the library is on city property it is unable to accept cash, making overdue fines impossible. “This shows how a penalty-free library can actually exist since we retain a majority of our loaned items,” explains Maxwell. “This act of cooperation on behalf of the patrons is a testament of the community’s goodwill towards the library.”

Fundraising is essential. The Friends host several annual off-property functions such as “A Taste for Books,” a cocktail event supported by local restaurants. The Friends are also developing a summer arts and literature festival to bring more awareness and hopefully donations to the library.

How does this library measure success? “It’s really about how many patrons return,” shares Maxwell, “but unfortunately we don’t have a way to track this because our collection and membership are not digital yet.” She compares the library to a community recreation center: “The more people who interact with the space, the better we can judge its value in the neighborhood.”

MCL has many aspirations for the future. One of the next steps is automation, and the library is currently looking into Koha, the open-source ILS. Stephanie Lake, a board member of the Friends, explains, “The last few years have been spent rebuilding the operational infrastructure, but we are just starting to address the challenges of a modern library.”

The 30,000 people of Makiki need a library now more than ever. “There is still no official State Library catering directly to the overly populated Makiki area, so we serve as the fix,” Maxwell emphasizes. Resisting and circumventing closure has become a library trademark. “Our patrons, volunteers, and community demand the comforts of a library, and we oblige as best we can,” says Maxwell. “We do this selflessly and with the hope that it will make a difference in people’s lives.”

Brian Mathews is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.



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