Friends in Need

You turn onto a crusty red road known as Hansen. You make your first right. You blow through what, in passing, looks like a tawny and crumbled former town center spotted with rusted sugar cane industry monuments.

After about a mile you question the accuracy of the directions you were given. This must be where Jesus lost his sandals, you think, contemplating turning around. You hit a T-intersection.

This must be where the first protozoan organism to move of its own accord lost its sandals, you think. There’s no way that the Maui Friends of the Library used bookstore is all the way out here.

But it is: left at the intersection, right after Puunene School. Further down. Another right turn.

The house that holds some 180,000 volumes is tiny—not much larger than the lanai at its front. It’s creaky, vaguely musty and shaded by a sprawling tree. In great contrast to the parched industrial desert that characterizes this area, the MFOL shop has an oddly comforting schoolhouse feel.

Part boneyard for titles with osteoporosis-ridden spines, part monument to the infinite potential of Gutenberg’s invention, the place is one of Maui’s quintessential hidden gems. 

It might also be a key lifeline for Maui’s malnourished public libraries.

Maui Friends of the Library has been around for nearly a century—since 1912. It operated informally for nearly 50 years until it received a charter of incorporation in 1957. Its mission has always been to support the Valley Isle’s free public library system. Initially that meant covering the salary of the first librarian to work at the island’s inaugural book depository, housed in the Alexander House Settlement in Wailuku.

Now the nonprofit aids the island’s libraries through things like promotion and procuring vital materials that otherwise would be beyond the system’s state-allotted budget.

An organization that operates solely on volunteer labor and donated books, MFOL depends on the Puunene shop and used book tables at individual library branches for their funding. Nearly every volume for sale in these spots is priced at a dime—from tawdry romance novels to titles like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. A few hundred, maybe, says MFOL President John Clark, cost a little more, but these are rarer, more valuable volumes. Clark lists a Holy Bible printed in the 19th century as an example.

Charging a dime per book may seem like a bad business plan, but Clark says that, with the Friends’ ultra-low operating costs, it adds up. 

“We do actually take in a fair amount of money,” Clark says, citing a report that shows MFOL had made about $16,000 as of the end of June. “We’re not talking Costco, of course,” he adds.

That money has allowed the group to cover things like a paint job at the Lahaina branch—a project sporting a $5,000 price tag—and a portion of the Lanai branch’s new chairs.

This is vital, given the current budget crisis facing Hawaii’s public libraries, a pinch state Senator and library advocate Kalani English says is beyond bare-bones. “They’re cutting into the marrow,” says the East Maui legislator.

He isn’t kidding: the Hawaii State Public Library System faces cuts totaling more than $5.7 million for fiscal year 2009. That’s a 20 percent budget reduction.

“They’re obviously hurting, like all branches of state government,” Clark says.

The shrunken library budget almost resulted in the loss of five branches statewide, including Hana’s public school library branch, which serves as a lifeline for residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the Internet or even newspapers.

“They are critical points in the community,” says Library Services Section Manager Susan Nakata, adding that libraries also serve as needed safe havens for keiki.

The State Board of Education cited circulation numbers as its reasoning for putting the Hana branch on the chopping block, which seemed to ignore Hana’s isolation and the size of the community.

“If you look at the numbers,” English says, “Hana has very low usage.” But in reality, he adds, libraries are most vital in remote communities. In most other places, the next library is often a mere 15-minute drive away; not so in the county’s isolated reaches. “Cuts in the rural areas have much greater impact than cuts in the cities,” English says.

The Hana Public Library dodged a bullet a few weeks ago, when hundreds of East siders showed up at a BOE meeting to oppose its closure. In the end, the board decided not to close any of the five branches, but instead to make cuts elsewhere.

Nakata says that includes implementing furloughs (from which the libraries were originally exempt), reducing public service hours, freezing vacant positions, reducing temporary hires and doing away with student helpers. They have until August 23 to decide.

How about staffing the library with volunteers? Nakata says that isn’t feasible, because “there are things we do in the library that are confidential.” Patron records and questions about business or health matters require the attention of someone who holds an appropriate degree—in many cases a master’s in library science.

With a looming deadline for the revised budget cuts, the pressure is on, and the cuts have to be made somewhere. 

Hawaii’s Constitution forbids us from doing deficit spending,” English says. “Our system is based on a balanced budget.”

That means that, unlike, say, California, the state can’t borrow money to cover its shortfalls. If the money isn’t there, it’s not there. English likens this to a consumer with a debit card versus one making purchases on credit.

Given libraries’ already-dire situation, which includes a substantial reduction in the allotted budget for books, periodicals and other vital materials, Nakata says that outside help from local Friends chapters is hugely important. “We rely heavily on their support during tough times,” she says. “Most importantly they help us with advocacy.”

Nakata cites a letter-writing campaign the Maui Friends executed to fend off a substantial budget reduction in October 2008.

State Librarian Richard Burns says circulation stats are the primary reason the Hawaii State Public Library system chose the five libraries it did. Yet library advocates note library usage is on the rise—probably a result of the recession.

Of course, scarcity of funding is a common plight. Pair that with the perceived obsolescence of libraries, and their existence is exponentially imperiled.

The wealth of information available on the Internet may be contributing to the notion that libraries are not as necessary as they once were. But there is some information that may never be available online—at least not from a credible source. The Hawaiiana room at the Wailuku Public Library is clear evidence of this.

In order for libraries’ relevance to be acknowledged by those who administer their funding, individuals need to show support. This doesn’t necessarily mean donating in the capacity of Friends of the Library (though the used book store could use a few more volunteers). It could be something as simple as renting the occasional DVD from the nearest branch instead of waiting on your Netflix cue, or searching the stacks for the titles on your summer reading list instead of dropping your dollars at a corporate chain.

In the current economic climate, libraries are among the services that cannot be taken for granted. As Senator English succinctly says: “Use it or lose it.” MTW

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