Images by John Hook

In 1976, during his second term as mayor of Honolulu, Frank F. Fasi and Assemblyman Neil Abercrombie, who represented Makiki-Mānoa, saw their dream for a public library set on the grounds of the Makiki District Park become a reality. Today, the “People’s Library,” as it’s called, is a community icon. The white concrete exterior shimmers like a beacon of hope, fueled by the “spirit of rebellion found in our founding political figures,” says Harold Burger, the director of the Makiki Community Library, who sits on the nine-person board that manages the space.

The tract of land that the library now shares was originally the site of the Experiment Station of the Sugar Planters’ Association, which opened in 1895. It operated as a research center until the 1970s, when the land was turned over to the City and County of Honolulu to be developed into Makiki District Park. Determined to meet the needs of the budding district, Fasi committed resources to repurpose the Sugar Planters’ Association’s administrative building as an independent, city-sponsored library for the community, to be run by the Friends of Makiki Library. It now houses a collection of more than 30,000 donated books ranging from mass-market paperbacks to children’s collections to rare first-edition finds.

Harold Burger, FLUX Hawaii

Today, the Makiki Community Library is a platform for community outreach, holding monthly events like family movie nights, astronomy viewings, poetry slams, and workshops on civic processes. It remains the only volunteer-run library in the islands and is open just three days of the week—unlike state-run libraries, which are open five or six days a week and have paid employees. It endures on a minimal budget of about $1,000 a month afforded by donations and grants.

Because of its unique standing as an on-again off-again city-funded library, the location has had its ups and downs over the decades. While Fasi was in office, it was a welcomed addition to the neighborhood and a resource well used by curious residents looking to satiate their appetites for knowledge or for quiet study areas. But after Fasi completed his term and Abercrombie, who was elected to state congress, headed to Washington D.C., the library fell into the hands of the state and was severely mismanaged, according to Burger. Despite the community’s request for the library to become an integrated part of the state library system, political disagreements resulted in the building being transferred back to the purview of the City and County Department of Parks and Recreation.

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In 1996, the library closed due to a lack of funding required to bring it up to code, and it remained off-limits to the public for three years. Abercrombie, meanwhile, secured a $100,000 congressional appropriation for renovations of the building, including an upgraded electrical system, new windows, a fire escape, an elevator, and a special needs lift for the mezzanine, and in 1999, its doors were again opened to the community. But the library’s woes were far from over. In 2007, city funds dried up once more. The library sat closed for a year, its books sold off or given to other libraries, until Mayor Mufi Hannemann returned the renovated library to the Friends of Makiki Library (now called Friends of Makiki Community Library). Since reopening in 2009, thanks to volunteer staff and donations, the library has rebuilt its collection and issued nearly 2,000 free library cards. “We have 150 people who come in regularly, and schools in the area come in periodically to clean the place,” Burger says.

Girl with book, FLUX Hawaii

The movement to fortify and incorporate the neighborhood’s only library has gained broad momentum since its reopening. In 2013, the state dedicated $250,000 to study the feasibility of a new building for an official public library for the district. Old Makiki, with its 1960s-era cinderblock walk-up apartments, churches, and storefronts, is transitioning into a new Makiki, with high-end commercial properties and brilliant restoration projects like the updated Kewalo Apartment Buildings. In the midst of it all, as the densely populated neighborhood continues to grow, Makiki’s library will remain a platform for community outreach and wherewithal. “It’s the spirit of volunteerism here in Hawai‘i that has made this work this long,” Burger says. “We have a number of people that spend their time, energy, and money to make sure this area doesn’t suffer from lack of opportunity.”

Makiki Community Library is located at 1527 Keeaumoku St. For more information, visit makiki.info/makiki-community-library.

This story was featured in our Charm Issue.