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Molokai librarian goes above and beyond for students

Diane Mokuau is named 2021 School Librarian of the Year

Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai Complex Area Superintendent Lindsay Ball (left) stands with Molokai High School librarian Diane Mokuau, who was recently named 2021 School Librarian of the Year Award by School Library Journal. This photo was taken Monday. Photo courtesy of Diane Mokuau

At Molokai High School, Diane Mokuau wanted the library to be more than a place where students could come and study — she wanted it to be somewhere they felt safe.

So she turned the library into a place for tutoring and activities like yoga and healthy cooking lessons, book fairs and family nights. She put on soft music and welcomed in middle school students who were sometimes intimidated by the high schoolers they share the campus with. For the students, “it’s a safe zone kind of place.”

“I make it welcome,” Mokuau said early Tuesday morning from the Hoolehua campus, where she typically arrives before 7 a.m.

Over the years, the 68-year-old librarian has gone way beyond just proffering books and research materials to students. She’s helped open up the eyes of students to East Coast college campuses, built up small libraries in the community and set up a “Read Across Molokai” program that has high school students reading to elementary kids.

For her efforts in and out of the library, Mokuau was one of two librarians nationwide to receive the 2021 School Librarian of the Year Award, which is presented by School Library Journal and sponsored by Scholastic Book Fairs.

Over the years, Diane Mokuau has gone above and beyond for her students, working to make the library a “safe zone” for the kids to study, learn and feel at ease. STATE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION photo

She and fellow librarian Amanda Jones of Louisiana are featured on the cover of this month’s issue of School Library Journal.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Mokuau said of the moment she got the news.

As part of the award, she receives $2,500 in cash and $2,500 in-kind digital and/or print products for her library as well as other perks, including a book giveaway for every student in the school.

Mokuau said she and Jones both work in small communities. Jones is from Denham Springs, nearly a 30-minute drive from Baton Rouge, according to School Library Journal’s website.

But Jones is “so younger, so tech savvy,” said Mokuau, who was born on Oahu and moved to many places while her father was in the military. Her husband is from Molokai.

Mokuau said her strength is not computers, social media or speaking to large groups but rather in working one-on-one with others to initiate programs.

Since 2014, for example, the Molokai College and Career Tour Club has taken students to tour college campuses, mainly on the East Coast but also on the West Coast and Oahu. The trip did not happen last year due to COVID-19.

Mokuau, the club’s co-adviser, said some students on those tours have gone off to colleges such as Wesleyan, Brown and Columbia. While visiting campuses they also seek out former Molokai students to bring them gifts from home and hear about the college experience, such as how snow isn’t so pretty after a while.

Mokuau said she wants Molokai students to know, “Look, you can go to college. . . . You have the qualities that colleges are looking for.”

As a member of the “Molokai Library Services Cadre” that assists the handful of libraries on island, Mokuau along with other librarians and library staff have been a force in helping schools and communities with their library efforts as well as supporting one another.

“We all potluck, talk story about what we are doing and have some kind of work sessions,” Mokuau said.

About two years ago, the group assisted Kilohana Elementary School in sprucing up its library, cleaning shelves and weeding through the books, with its principal now manning the small space. Members also assisted staff at Molokai’s Alu Like Native Hawaiian Library.

Mokuau has also worked on grants that have included a $10,000 award to buy Kindles for students, mentor schools that do not have a certified librarian and have high school students read to children in those schools.

Having a certified librarian to assist is important to Mokuau, who took courses from the University of Hawaii at Manoa to achieve her master’s degree in Library Information Science, all while raising her four girls with her husband on Molokai.

Formerly a schoolteacher at Maunaloa Elementary, Mokuau became Molokai High School’s librarian in 2002.

Fortunately, before the pandemic hit last year, Mokuau was able to set up the “Read Across Molokai” program, taking high school students back to their elementary schools to read to the younger kids. The program was a hit, with teachers reminiscing about the high school students they taught years ago and elementary students looking up to the teens. This year the program is operating virtually.

Last year, a Molokai High senior went back to his former school of Kilohana to read to students. After he graduated, he stayed on Molokai to take college courses online because of COVID-19. He is still helping out at Kilohana and calls himself the school librarian. Mokuau said he hopes to become a librarian someday.

“That’s a really big success for us,” she said. “Part of my job or think my focus is supposed to be how do you further your profession, how do you bring attention to library and schools.”

Mokuau has received other awards and recognition in the past, including being named the first National Board Certified Teacher Librarian on Molokai, according to the state Department of Education.

In 2019, the NEA Foundation awarded Mokuau with the Hawaii Teacher of the Year Award, and in 2016 she received the Golden Key Award from the Hawaii Association of School Libraries.

Mokuau was also the recipient of the 2019 S.T.A.C.Y. Award for Teaching Excellence.

As she walks around town, the mother of four and grandmother of two has been getting congratulations from the community for her most recent award.

“It’s just kind of surreal,” she said. “If I really think about it, it’s such as huge honor. . . . They pick you nationally, that’s like huge.”

But she added that she’s done nothing alone.

“I don’t do anything on my own,” she said. “We all work together. We all got to do more than one job there.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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