Tucked away between two French oil paintings in the museum’s Modernism gallery—Amédée Ozenfant’s Accords and Robert Delaunay’s Rainbow—is the entrance to the museum’s library. Its nondescript entrance is easy to overlook, however the Robert Allerton Art Library is a treasure trove of tomes and periodicals that’s not just reserved for art scholars; it’s open to the public.

Why should more people use this art library?

It’s the perfect place to find out more information about, say, the 1929 John Kelly etching you inherited from your grandparents. Or maybe you have a 19th-century Chinese teapot an Aunty had stashed away for decades in storage. The library’s collection of more 55,000 books and exhibition catalogs might help you discover its history.

“We are a non-circulating library, which means our rich resources are always in-house,” says head librarian Sachi Kawai‘ae‘a. “The collection is available for reference to anyone who comes to the Reading Room. You can read subscriptions to 40 art magazines from local to international organizations/publishers, auction catalogs and the Sunday New York Times, plus three databases (Oxford Art Online, JSTOR, Artnet) are also available free of charge.”

The library didn’t start out with such an impressive assemblage. Opened in 1927, the collection began with a gift from museum founder Mrs. Anna Rice Cooke. She donated 514 books and magazines from her private collection, which primarily focused on Asian art. In 1956, the library underwent a major renovation funded by Robert Allerton and was dedicated in his name. The Reading Room was redesigned and enlarged in 2006 with new shelving and furniture. Then in 2011, when the Honolulu Academy of Arts merged with The Contemporary Museum, which had its own library, the two library collections were combined.

Today, the collection of books and periodicals continues to grow and the library is gradually beefing up its digital presence. Since Kawai‘ae‘a arrived in 2012, she and her team of two part-time assistants, Yumiko Glover and Keiko Kanko, began the formidable task of converting the outdated card catalog to the online public access catalog (OPAC) supported by generous funding from the Robert F. Lange Foundation. To achieve the goal, they also have the help of nine invaluable volunteers.

They’ve made a lot or progress so far—all books acquired since 2012 and the special Japanese collections (Richard Lane, Azabu Museum and Hiroko Ikeda) are now searchable through the museum library’s OPAC page. If that project doesn’t sound daunting enough, the staff and volunteers also cater to approximately 160 visitors a month (the library is open 20 hours a week).

We sat down with Kawai‘ae‘a, who is the museum’s eighth librarian, to find out what else happens between the stacks and how one finds the path to becoming an art librarian.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in a town at the foot of Mt. Fuji, Japan. I studied at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa where I received my BA and MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science). I went back to Japan and lived in Tokyo for six years where I worked as a reference librarian for the U.S. Information Agency in Japan (USIS/American Embassy Tokyo). I moved back to O‘ahu in 2000 and took a job as an Asia-Pacific librarian at the Kapi‘olani Community College Library. Then in January, 2012, I was hired as head librarian here at the museum. I can’t believe I’ve been a librarian for twenty years nonstop since I graduated.

Did always want to be a librarian?
Nope! It was sort of an accident that I went to library school and became a librarian. Just before my last semester as a geography major at UH, my housemate had to return to Japan for a summer internship. She had been working at UHM Library as the student assistant for the Japan Specialist in the library’s Asia Collection. I substituted for my friend and took the summer job. I continued working at the library in my final fall semester and as graduation approached, my boss, the late Dr. Masato Matsui, asked what my plans were after graduation and he encouraged me to apply for library school. Matsui was friends with library school dean at the time and we all had lunch. They talked about my possible future as a graduate student. I didn’t even know where the library school was located on campus! I took the GRE just before the end of the semester and two weeks after the test I got a letter that said “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the program.” I didn’t even remember officially filling out an application. It all happened so quickly and I began graduate school the next semester.

What’s a typical day like as the head librarian?
I check and follow up with reference questions, help library users find the information they’re looking for, and assist the library staff and volunteers on their projects. I supervise one intern from the UH library school who’s coming twice a week this semester. I’m on the board of two local library committees where I participate in discussions and attend meetings. I also will order books and library supplies, check subscription titles, and process new books.

Who was the most famous artist that has visited the library?
I haven’t met big name artists yet! But I feel very lucky to have a rising star—and an Artists of Hawai‘i 2013 alum—Yumiko Glover on my team, and enjoy working with other local artists such as Jason Teraoka, Marc Thomas, and Brady Evans (just to name a few) as my colleagues.

What was the most challenging request you’ve had as a librarian?
Every day is challenging here in the museum library… so I cannot pick one! My goal is to be able to attract attention to the library’s role and raise its profile as part of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Riding the wave of change in the library field and supporting the museum’s mission and goals as the sole librarian are huge roles. On a brighter note, this position offers me new daily challenges but offers rewards simultaneously. Also, my two children (a first and third grader) are so excited that I work here at the museum. They love coming to visit!

Library hours:
Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10am to 3:30pm
Fridays, 10am to 3pm
Saturdays, 10am to 2 pm
Information: 808-532-8754, gro.muesumululonohnull@yrarbil