Hawaii’s first public library, the Library of Hawaii, traces its roots back to the Honolulu Library and Reading Room Association (HLRRA). Formed in 1879, the HLRRA was Hawaii’s second subscription library and its most successful. Hawaii’s royalty (King Kalakaua, Queen Kapiolani, Queen Emma, and Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop) gave both financial support and their personal book collections to the association. King Kalakaua also provided tax exemptions and a land grant for a permanent site in downtown Honolulu.
In 1909, after 34 years of service, the Hawaii Library and Reading Room Association signed an agreement with the trustees of the Library of Hawaii to contribute its 20,000 books, periodicals, furnishings and funds towards the formation of the Library of Hawaii. In addition to this agreement, the trustees also obtained a $100,000 grant from American industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, a guarantee from the territorial legislature (1909) of $10,000 for its annual operation, and an agreement with the Hawaii Historical Society for its collection.
A site was selected in early 1911, the cornerstone laid on October 21, 1911, and the library officially opened to the public on February 1, 1913. The front columns identify the building as a Carnegie library. The size of the collection on opening was 30,000 volumes (18,878 came from the disbanded HLRRA and 1326 came from the Hawaii Historical Society). The total cost of the building was $127,000 (the additional $27,000 was provided by the territorial legislature.
Edna Allyn, the librarian with the HLRRA since 1907, was appointed the first librarian of the Library of Hawaii. She provided continuity and direction in the changeover from a private subscription library to a public library. She remained with the Library of Hawaii until her death in 1927. The children’s section of the Hawaii State Library is named in her honor.
The Library of Hawaii was mandated to provide library service to all the islands in the Territory. This mandate was accomplished through small deposit collections known as “traveling libraries,” set up in communities, rural areas, sugar plantations, private homes and public schools. Within two months after opening, ten stations had been established on Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii. Two years later, there were 56 stations.
By 1921, the cost of transportation and the limitation of deposit libraries led to the passage of the County Library Law of 1921 establishing separate public libraries on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii. The Library of Hawaii then limited its services to the island of Oahu while maintaining a minor supervisory role over the new county libraries.
During this period the library rapidly outgrew its quarters. In 1927 the legislature appropriated $300,000 to expand and renovate the building. Construction began in 1928 and was completed in 1930. The expansion was designed by C. W. Dickey and included a wing added to each side creating a quadrangle with an open-air courtyard in the middle, tripling the size of the building. At the same time, subject departments were created and the library began a new phase in its service.
With statehood (1959) the Hawaii State Legislature pulled together all the county libraries and established a statewide public library system, still the only one in the United States.
In 1966 the statewide library system was reorganized, the downtown library was renamed the Hawaii State Library and became the main library and resource center for the seven-island, multi-branch Hawaii State Public Library System.
In 1978 the building was designated a historic site and added to the National Register of Historic Places.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s the library again outgrew its facility and the building began showing physical signs of age. In 1990 the State Legislature passed funding for a second renovation and expansion. The project began in 1990 and was completed in May 1992. It included air-conditioning, re-roofing, asbestos removal, new plumbing, handicapped access, landscaping and the addition of a large wing on the mauka end of the building successfully blending in with the existing building.