Hometown Heroes: Chezlani Casar and the team at the Kailua-Kona Public Library

  • Chezlani Casar, interim branch manager, left, and Library Technician Sally Young, in front of the drive-through book window at the Kailua-Kona Public Library. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • The Kailua-Kona Public Library. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, West Hawaii Today is publishing a story about individuals, groups or organizations that have helped make life better for others in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Chezlani Casar arrived at her first day of work as interim branch manager at the Kailua-Kona Public Library on March 3, she had no idea a planet-circling virus was about to make normal operating procedures a thing of the past.

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Just two weeks later, Casar and her staff forged ahead into a brave new library reality, putting protocols in place that would keep the library serving patrons in West Hawaii. Now, nearly four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kailua-Kona Public Library is very much alive and well, a vital community resource.

While the doors are not yet open to the public for browsing, patrons are able to check out books and CDs/DVDs, call for information on any topic, use computers, connect virtually, use WiFi, print something, be apprised of new book releases, and more.

Casar said the library has slowly phased in new services and managed the expectations of patrons, all while ensuring the safety and health of the nine-person library staff — all working full-time — and users is paramount. All books are quarantined for three days before they can be checked out again; persons picking up items may only do so at the front door or drive-through window, provided they are wearing a mask and use hand sanitizer.

She says realistic guidelines from the Hawaii State Public Library System (HSPLS) have been instrumental in making sure all Hawaii’s 51 branch libraries are reopening correctly.

“I think the public understands and accepts we are doing the right thing,” Casar says.

Born and raised in Honolulu, Casar, 38, moved to Honokaa in 2007. She earned her master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2017.

Her first professional librarian experience was at the Hawaii County Department of Research and Development, followed by a stint as a “floating” librarian for Hawaii Island. This job required her to visit all HSPLS branches on the island, assisting staff and circulating ideas for new programs and procedures.

Casar says the Kailua-Kona library was her favorite among the branches on the island, so when head librarian Denise Stromberg announced she was retiring at the end of February, Casar jumped at the opportunity to fill in on an interim basis.

“The Kailua-Kona Public Library not only has a great professional staff, but it also serves a very active, diverse community,” she says.

Casar credits Stromberg, who worked at the branch for 28 years, as being a major factor in directing the library’s growth and popular community outreach.

The Kailua-Kona branch now has more than 54,000 titles in its collection of books, CDs and DVDs, all backed up by well over three million titles within HSPLS — available to patrons at all State branch libraries — making it one of the largest public library systems, and the only statewide system, in the United States.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kailua-Kona Public Library was serving about 400 patrons daily (both residents and visitors). That number has fallen somewhat, but circulation is still a robust 50% of the pre-pandemic levels.

As patron usage has slowly resumed at the library, HSPLS and Kailua-Kona staff have also been working to make some popular library programs available online.

Teens can meet virtually to play Dungeons and Dragons, and middle school students will practice for next year’s Newbery Quiz Bowl via Zoom. For younger readers, HSPLS has produced children’s story time and craft videos, available at www.librarieshawaii.org. Meanwhile, the library’s Summer Reading Program, “Imagine Your Story,” is still in place and will continue through the end of August. For kids, teens and adults, the program tallies and incentivizes with large and small rewards how many minutes patrons spend reading.

Along with former head librarian Stromberg, Casar also credits the Friends of the Library Kona (F.O.L.K.), a nonprofit group, for its efforts to provide volunteers and financial assistance to the Kailua-Kona and Kealakekua public libraries and promote the importance of library services.

Though Hawaii’s libraries are supported by taxpayers, F.O.L.K. provides supplementary funds to pay for special programs for children and adults, staff education, materials, travel and book groups, and educational scholarships — of which Casar was once a recipient. The nonprofit raises funds from donations, memberships, grants, and lobby and monthly lanai book sales.

“F.O.L.K. helping us with publicity, volunteers, funding and programs — these are four huge things,” says Casar.

Currently, the library’s doors are open only for computer use, of which there are eight slots per session. Casar says the next phase of planned reopening will allow a limited number of patrons inside at a time to browse and borrow books, but there will be no seating or tables.

As with so much in the COVID-19 world, she cannot yet provide a date for this next phase of service.

“Though our library’s doors cannot yet be wide open, the library still has a crucial role to play as a community gathering space, offering people the possibility to make connections,” says Casar.

Patrons may call the library at 327-4327 to request books or ask questions, or they may visit the HSPLS website (www.librarieshawaii.org) to place holds on books or materials they want to check out; when the materials are available at the Kailua-Kona Library, they will be notified by e-mail and can come to pick them up.

Library items may be picked up at the front door service desk, or by appointment at the mauka-side drive-thru window. Current hours are: Tuesday 12-7 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. and Friday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. The library is closed on Sunday and Monday. Also, no book donations are currently being accepted.

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To reach F.O.L.K., visit www.folkhawaii.com, to become a member, receive the newsletter, volunteer or make a donation or grant to help the Kailua-Kona Library provide a variety of enhanced services to West Hawaii residents.

Know a Hometown Hero that should be highlighted next Wednesday? It can be anybody, from a youngster doing good for the community, to a professional helping with the COVID-19 pandemic, or even a kupuna! Please send your nominations to cjensen@westhawaiitoday.com with the subject: Hometown Heroes Nomination. Please include the hero’s name, contact information and what makes them a hero.

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