Multitasking in Molokai: Diane Mokuau, 2021 School Librarian of the Year

A steadfast advocate for cultural values and new perspectives, this Hawaii librarian enriches the lives of her high school students and her community.


Photos By PF Bentley


Molokai, Hawaii’s fifth largest island, is just 26 miles from Oahu, but its way of living is worlds apart. In some ways, the remote island can be defined by what it doesn’t have: traffic lights, big box stores, movie theaters, or a comprehensive system of libraries throughout its schools and community.

But that definition misses much of what makes this small island such a special place for its residents. People naturally band together, learning how to use their strengths to help one another. Diane Mokuau is a shining example of that. She’s the librarian at Molokai High School, but that doesn’t begin to explain what she does.

“Nobody gets to do one job here, no way,” says high school principal Katina Soares with a laugh.

Yes, Mokuau maintains the school’s collection, works with classroom teachers, and creates literacy events like most librarians. But she has also created a club that helps students visit the East and West Coasts for college tours, organized a cadre of island librarians to help one another, and cowritten a million-dollar grant application to develop the Molokai LIVE 21st Century Learning Center, which provides homework assistance and enrichment activities to middle school students.

For decades, she has helped draw students into environmental initiatives. “Of the over 7,000 residents, many strongly embrace Hawaiian cultural values and practices tied to the aina (earth),” Cynthia Delanty, branch manager of the Molokai Public Library, wrote in her nomination for Mokuau. Through her involvement with the ecological nonprofit Molokai Cares, Mokuau helped develop a plan encouraging students to embrace stewardship and recycling, connecting that to the Hawaiian value of malama aina, caring for the land. She co-created Molokai’s Earth Day celebration with local partners and schools. Now, she’s spearheading a grant application to help preserve the island’s history through maps and other resources.

READ: Amanda Jones and Diane Mokuau Named 2021 School Librarians of the Year

As befitting her expansive outlook, Mokuau’s first thought when she learned she’d been named SLJ’s 2021 School Librarian of the Year was the community benefit: “This is a big deal for Hawaii and Molokai. So many people I look up to are so excited.”

Mokuau, 68, came to the island from Oahu in 1988 when she and her husband moved to 40 acres of his family homestead land. She became a teacher at Maunaloa Elementary School, but felt isolated until she began to connect with fellow teachers. Her husband worked on Oahu and was a weekend parent to their four daughters.

“It was a struggle,” she says. She continued to pursue volunteer work, became active in the teachers union, and took night classes to earn her MLIS.

In 2002, she took over the high school’s 10,800-square-foot library. Drawing inspiration from an online course, she remade the space, creating quiet and social zones, and dialed back restrictive policies; changes included allowing students to borrow books even if they owed fines. She created a makerspace and packed it with flip tables and exercise ball chairs and brought the state’s poet laureate to the library for a poetry slam. Early on, Mokuau successfully fought the challenge of a book about gender identity. She makes sure marginalized students feel safe in the library, Delanty says.

Her colleagues point out that one of the biggest statements Mokuau makes is simply through her persistent work. Soares says that her car is typically in the school parking lot before she arrives, and Glenn Kondo, the school’s retired tech director, sees it there every Sunday.


College focused

While Mokuau admits to being shy—“public speaking, no thank you,” she says—she is bold when it comes to creating partnerships. One of her biggest efforts was to begin the Molokai College and Career Tour Club, a group that enables students to travel to the mainland for college visits, in 2014.

“Many of our students have never left Molokai, or their families do not believe they are capable of going to college due to financial and/or academic obstacles,” Mokuau wrote about the initiative. Her efforts have altered that view.

While fundraising is tough on an island where 100 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, Mokuau knows the experience can show students “the world is bigger than our island.”

Delanty notes that along with the island’s strong cultural values, “Molokai’s history is one of persistent economic deprivation and problems that arise from poverty and hardship. Diane believes education is the answer to preparing students to overcoming challenges.”

The Molokai College and Career Tour Club has run an annual trip (except in 2020—it was canceled due to the pandemic), bringing 44 students to the East or West Coast to visit colleges, businesses, and other cultural spots. Five students have already earned a bachelor’s degree, and 39 of the 44 earned college scholarships worth anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent of their tuition costs.

Mokuau connects her students with former island residents to deliver firsthand knowledge about what it can be like to attend school so far away. One former student told of being homesick at Brown University, while another at Wesleyan debunked the myth that snow was always pretty. More profoundly, both mentioned that they are carrying more than their own ambitions at school; they feel like they represent their families and the entire island.

Another accomplishment of Mokuau’s began more organically. When Delanty became director of the island’s lone public library in 2018, she came to the high school to share resources. Mokuau set up an informal dinner to connect her with the librarians and clerks who run the four elementary schools. (Mokuau’s 350-student school shares a building with the middle school, making her the de facto librarian for grades five through eight, too.)

The gathering soon turned into the Molokai Services Cadre, where the librarians would enlist one another’s help and expertise with various projects, starting by weeding the collection at Kaunakakai Elementary. When the staff at Molokai’s Alu Like Native Hawaiian Library heard about this work, they invited the group to help them. The one-room library contains books published in Hawaiian, culturally relevant DVDs, and maps of the island. Although only part of the material had even been classified, that important work is proceeding now.

“Diane is the whole reason Molokai Services Cadre was formed,” says Delanty. “In her quiet way, she’s very dynamic.”

Since the pandemic shutdown, Mokuau’s high school has reopened for in-person learning, but her library is used as four classrooms due to construction and social distancing protocol. That hasn’t stopped her from delivering books by cart to students or leaving them at the front of the school for students attending virtually. She wipes down and quarantines all the books herself.

To supplement her budget of $4,500, Mokuau applies for grants constantly and has won many. Her latest proffered $10,000 to buy Kindles for elementary students, allow them to access ebooks, and have high school students serve as readers for elementary programs. This was of particular benefit to a recent high school graduate, who was unable to go away to school as planned due to COVID. He’s now volunteering at the elementary school through the program and attending college online.

Mokuau is also the district’s curriculum coordinator and the union representative for her part of the state. These tasks don’t include the after-school tutoring she organizes or the parents nights she plans, where students showcase their skills.

“She really provides an opportunity for kids and the community to connect,” Soares says. “Her library has become a hub that way.”

Those qualities have earned her statewide recognition. In 2019, she was named the NEA Foundation’s Hawaii Teacher of the Year, and in 2016 she garnered a Golden Key award from the state’s association of school libraries.

Mokuau bats away the accolades. “I depend on so many people. Friends know I’m going to ask for their help,” she says. “I’m not shy in asking.”

Unafraid to cover controversial topics in her programming, Mokuau discusses issues such as genetically modified organisms (a big topic for an island with many farmers), the good and bad of cruise ships that help the island’s economy but can pollute its land, and keeping alive the history and concerns of native Hawaiians.

“People who live here have a commitment to live here and care about the island,” Soares says. “Diane is highly respected. When she says something, people believe her.”

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About the Award: SLJ presents the sixth School Librarian of the Year award with sponsor Scholastic Book Fairs. The winner receives a $2,500 cash award and $2,500 in-kind digital and/or print products for their library; a Scholastic Book Fairs “Mr. Schu’s Picks” collection of books; and a visit from John Schumacher, Ambassador of School Libraries, Scholastic, including
a book giveaway for every student in the school.

The 2021 Judges: John Schumacher, Ambassador of School Libraries, Scholastic; Cicely Lewis, 2020 School Librarian of the Year; and Glenn Robbins, superintendent, Brigantine (NJ) Community School district; and SLJ editors.

Read more about the award :

Wayne D’Orio writes frequently about education and equity.

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Catherine Hickinbotham

Congratulations!! You are an inspiration! Reading your story has given me such joy. Someday I hope to meet you and the beautiful island of Molokai!

Posted : Mar 23, 2021 07:20



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