A writer explores the gathering spaces and architecture delights hidden within some of Honolulu’s most beloved public libraries.
When Andrew Carnegie called them “palaces for the people,” he was referring to the most magnificent of the 1,700 public libraries he helped fund throughout the United States. But Honolulu’s neighborhood libraries are not grand, imposing structures. I think of ours more like living rooms—informal places where people look for jobs on the communal desktop computers, where children come for story hour, where the librarians nod in recognition (but chatty baristas, they are not) when I check out my books, as if they know that I am here to be alone among people.
Much has been written about the importance of third places—gathering spaces other than work or home—and their decline in modern society. But Hawai‘i isn’t like most other places. We have our parks and public pools and beaches and ocean (a third place for many a surfer) and even the parking lots of parks, all of which we gather in year round to meet friends and strangers. Indoor public places, however, are less common in the islands. While the outdoors allow us to connect and revel in nature, libraries offer the comforting embrace of books, shelter, and the trappings of community.
Take, for example, Liliha Public Library, where all the signs are written in both English and Hawaiian. “Puke Kākuni Kepanī ‘Ōpio Makua” and “Young Adult Manga” reads the one over the manga rack, which sits near the state’s largest collection of Chinese language books. Over at Wahiawā library, a “Skarsgård Chärge Bår” sign bearing headshots of the Skarsgård family of actors hangs over a table with power strips. Nearby, instead of the usual categories, the nonfiction aisles are organized by “tough topics”: “cancer, divorce, drugs,” or “self-esteem, sex, STDs.”
The architecture of O‘ahu’s 25 libraries, built over a century from 1913 (the main library) to 2018 (Nānākuli Public Library), are as unique and personal as the books and offerings they contain. Here are a few of my favorites in central Honolulu.
Opened in 1966, Liliha Public Library was designed by McKinley High School graduate Steven Oyakawa, who studied and worked with legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s the only one in the state’s public library system with rooftop parking, and as you descend, you’re immediately enveloped in soft and rounded corners: the stone screen along the curved exterior staircase; the shapes in the yellow iron gates at the entrance; even the building itself, which stands long and oblong. Inside, a circle of round skylights in the high ceiling calls to mind spaceships.
The McCully-Mō‘ili‘ili Public Library reopened to the public in 2022 after a $2 million renovation.
Robert Matsushita, a Kaimukī High School graduate, designed the McCully-Mōi‘ili‘ili Public Library, which opened in 1969 and resembles two stacked books. Among the library’s draws: on the first floor, an auditorium and carpeted storytelling well, which hosts frequent toddler storytimes, and on the second floor, the largest Korean-language collection in the Hawai‘i library system.
This library opened in 1952 and was designed by the same firm that worked on the Hawai‘i State Capitol and some of the apartments near the library. Strolling down the shaded walkway feels like entering a friend’s house through the lanai, and the Wai‘anae sandstone columns and tall windows fronting Diamond Head give the building the aesthetic of a beach house cathedral. The library is made even more cheerful and inviting with turquoise interior beams, a color echoed in both the low-rise apartment building across the street and in the ocean less than a five-minute walk away. Next to the Waikīkī library is the Hawai‘i State Library for the Blind and Print Disabled, which offers books and magazines in audio and braille. It also has a radio reading service, in which narrators read articles from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, including grocery ads, as well as stories from other local publications and books.
Sandstone columns and tall windows give the Waikīkī-Kapahulu Public Library the aesthetic of a beach house cathedral.Hawai‘i’s first public library opened in 1913, and in the early decades, it was praised for carrying only English-language books to help promote the Americanization of Hawai‘i’s people. (Today, Korean e-books and Hawaiian-language texts abound.)
Located next to ‘Iolani Palace, the library was built with the assistance of a $100,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie and was designed by Carnegie’s brother-in-law. The front section of the library is the original structure, with its imposing Tuscan columns and two-story lobby. But when the library expanded in 1929, Hawai‘i architect Charles W. Dickey gave it a more distinctive Hawai‘i touch, adding two wings enclosing a courtyard. It’s this area that feels the most inviting, a place where you can sit amid a tropical garden and dive into a book from the stacks.