The earliest libraries in Hawaiʻi appear to have been reading rooms provided for ships officers and crews. In Lāhainā, the Seamen’s Chapel and Reading Room was built in 1834 following an appeal by William Richards and Ephriam Spaulding (it was built two years later.)
In Honolulu, the Sandwich Islands Institute, organized in November 1837, fitted up a room at the Seamen’s Bethel in downtown Honolulu as a library and a museum of natural history and Pacific artifacts.
A newspaper article in October 1840 referred to this as a “Public Library, three to four hundred volumes” and also listed a “Reading Room for Seamen,” presumably at a different location.
A decade later, in 1850, residents of Honolulu organized the Atheneum Society, which for a year or two maintained a reading room and library. The Atheneum was succeeded in 1853 by the Honolulu Circulating Library Association.
In 1879, a group of men founded the Honolulu Library and Reading Room Association. In the local newspaper, the Commercial Pacific Advertiser, editor JH Black wrote, “The library is not intended to be run for the benefit of any class, party, nationality, or sect.”
Some of the founders wanted to exclude women from membership, but Alexander Cartwright disagreed, writing to his brother Alfred: “The idea keeps the blessed ladies out and the children. What makes us old geezers think we are the only ones to be spiritually and morally uplifted by a public library in this city?”
It wasn’t long before the committee changed the wording of the constitution to make women eligible for membership.
Early in its history, the organization had established a solid economic foundation, and over time it was able to obtain the moral and financial support of both the Hawaiian government and wealthy citizens.
King Kalākaua, Queen Kapiʻolani, Queen Emma, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, Regent Lili‘uokalani, Minister of the Interior F. W. Hutchinson and Charles R. Bishop were just a few of its notable and highly influential supporters.
From 1879 to 1912, library service was provided by the Honolulu Library and Reading-Room Association.
In 1909, Governor Frear helped pass the “Act to Provide for the Establishment of the Public Library of Hawaii”. On May 15, 1909 the Honolulu Library and Reading Room and the Library of Hawaiʻi signed an agreement by which the former agreed to turn over all books, furnishings and remaining funds to the latter.
A few months later, the Honolulu Library and Reading Room, Library of Hawaiʻi and the Historical Society jointly signed and submitted a letter to Andrew Carnegie requesting a grant for the construction of the Library of Hawaiʻi.
The request to Carnegie was for funds to build the new Library; Carnegie responded that the sum of $100,000 would be made ready as soon as a site was selected and plans drawn up.
The building’s final location, though, was not immediately settled. Several possible sites were considered. Ultimately, Governor Frear made a lot available on the corner of King and Punchbowl streets.
He picked a site that in 1872 had been purchased by the Government of Prince Lunalilo and transferred its control to the Board of Education.
The site was the location of Hāliʻimaile, the residence of Boki and Liliha and later Victoria Kamāmalu and her father and brothers before they ascended Kamehameha IV and Kamehameha V.
In 1874, the government-supported Pohukaina School for Girls was started. Just up the street was the Royal School for Boys.
In order to accommodate the new Library of Hawaiʻi, after 36-years at King and Punchbowl, Pohukaina School was moved to Kakaʻako; the new school opened in 1913.
Ultimately, the Library of Hawaiʻi was completed at a cost of $127,000, with the local legislative funding providing the difference.
The building opened its doors on February 11, 1913, and Hawaiʻi at last joined those states of America that offered free library services to their communities. The library, now known as the Hawaiʻi State Library, still stands today.
Greco-Romanesque columns in front mark it as a Carnegie library, and within its lobby, a bust of Andrew Carnegie, the man who made it possible is on the grounds.
In 1921, the County Library Law established separate libraries on the islands of Kauaʻi, Maui and Hawaiʻi, under minimal supervision by the Library of Hawaiʻi, which restricted its services to Oʻahu. Even so, the latter quickly outgrew its quarters.
In 1927, the Territorial legislature approved funding to expand and renovate the building. Construction was completed in 1930. Architect CW Dickey tripled its size by adding new wings to create an open-air courtyard in the center.
After statehood in 1959, the Hawaiʻi State Legislature created the Hawaiʻi State Public Library System, the only statewide system in the United States, with the Hawaiʻi State Library building as its flagship branch.
My grandmother worked at the State Library, from 1920 to 1948; she retired after serving as Assistant Head Librarian and Director of the Extension Department. Part of her duties included the expansion of the Library to the Neighbor Islands in 1921. My mother received a degree in Library Science and was archivist at Punahou School.