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Molokai school’s librarian, Diane Mokuau, wins national honor

  • COURTESY PF BENTLEY
                                National School Librarian of the Year Diane Mokuau of Molokai says a librarian is “the best search engine.”

    COURTESY PF BENTLEY

    National School Librarian of the Year Diane Mokuau of Molokai says a librarian is “the best search engine.”

A resourceful librarian on the remote, rural island of Molokai has won national acclaim as 2021 School Librarian of the Year for her work to engage teens and enhance the trajectory of their lives.

“When they called me, I’m like, me? — no way, oh my goodness!” said Diane Mokuau, Molokai High School’s librarian and curriculum coordinator. “I’m so blown away. I’m just happy that we can bring attention to Hawaii and Maui County and Molokai.”

The honor was presented by School Library Journal to Mokuau and Amanda Jones, a teacher-librarian at a middle school in Louisiana. It carries a $2,500 cash award plus $2,500 in digital or print supplies for each school, and is sponsored by Scholastic Book Fairs.

“We’re a small community, so everyone really does wear a lot of hats, but she takes it a step further,” said Molokai High’s principal, Katina Soares. “Her purpose and passion and energy and enthusiasm to continue learning and trying to instill that in our kids is just unparalleled. She’s so rare. We’re very blessed.”

With a budget of just $4,500 a year for her library, Mokuau has vigorously pursued grant opportunities to support her students. She works to broaden their horizons while also strengthening their knowledge of their island home and culture.

Mokuau co-wrote a five-year, $1 million grant known as “Molokai LIVE” that offered after-school academic support, enrichment and career exploration to all middle and high school students on the island who wanted to take part. It funded tutors and a wide array of activities from the arts to robotics, plus ohana nights to attract the community.

“Diane’s philosophy is that a library should be the hub of a community, providing academic, social and emotional resources equally,” said Cynthia Delanty, branch manager of the Molokai Public Library, who nominated Mokuau for the award. “There were times, prior to COVID-19, when so many students were in the library it was standing room only.”

A recent $10,000 grant Mokuau procured went to buy Kindles for elementary students so they could have access to e-books. She forges bonds between older and younger students and among schools with the “Read Across Molokai” initiative, where high school students read to elementary kids.

Knowing that some teens have never had a chance to travel, Mokuau co-founded the Molokai College and Career Tour Club to take them on trips to the mainland to visit job sites and colleges, including Ivy League schools. The kids learned to plan, budget and fund-raise for the trip — and 90% of participants have gone on to college.

Mokuau moved to the close-knit island in 1988 with her husband, a Molokai native, and young daughters, and became a vital part of its fabric. She started out as a teacher at Maunaloa Elementary School but went on to earn her master’s in library and information science and ultimately became a National Board Certified Teacher librarian.

A mother of four daughters and grandmother of two, she chaired the School Community Council for 17 years at Molokai High and still serves on it. She is also the accreditation coordinator for the school and offers library services to the nearby middle school.

“Every student needs a school librarian who can work with the teachers, who can help them discover the right books for them, because libraries are your nonbiased source,” Mokuau said. “You’re like the best search engine.”

“At one time you had a certified librarian at every school,” she added. “A lot of schools cut libraries, so on our island we have four elementary schools and there is only one that has a certified librarian.”

She joined forces with colleagues at other schools, the public library and the Native Hawaiian Library to form the Molokai Library Services Cadre to help one another and support schools that didn’t have their own librarians.

Mokuau, who just turned 69, is now working on a grant-funded initiative dubbed “Our Future in Our Past.” The community engagement project aims to preserve the moolelo (stories) of elders that otherwise can be lost, along with historical documents and maps.

“She’s just really genuine,” Soares said. “She never stops learning and is always bugging me with new ideas, saying, ‘How about we try this, how about we try that?’”

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