UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen: Joseph Sanchez, library director engaging with the community he serves

In less than two years, new Library Director Joseph Sanchez is already making a big impact on campus with a major renovation of the library lanai and lobby, the introduction of new modern services, and expanded outreach. He says he’s motivated by the desire to be a leader who inspires others while treating them with respect and dignity.

By Leah Sherwood.
This post is part of a series on Quintessential University Citizens at UH Hilo. The honorees were chosen by members of the Chancellor’s Executive Council and others during the first months after Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s arrival at the university in July 2019.

Joseph Sanchez
Joseph Sanchez. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri for UH Hilo Stories.

Joseph Sanchez, director of the Edwin H. Mookini Library at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, thinks big: he wants to build a community of friendship and positivity that expands outwards from the library and transforms the entire campus, anchored in the unique culture and ecology of Hawai‘i Island.

“We are in Hilo, Hawai‘i, we have nature right at our front step,” says Sanchez. “My goal is to build a positive human culture that is focused on academics and connecting people to the land and water. It’s bigger than the library, me, and the university.”

For his infectiously positive leadership and vision on how to engage libraries with the communities they serve in relevant ways, Sanchez has been recognized as a Quintessential University Citizen by the UH Hilo Chancellor’s Executive Council.

Julie Mowrer, director of the Center for Community Engagement and a member of the Chancellor’s Executive Council, notes that Sanchez “gave vision to the library and created significant positive change in a short amount of time.”

Ken Hon, the interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, credits Sanchez’s “out-of-the-box thinking” as the driving force behind his successes.

In summer 2019, Sanchez participated in transforming the outdoor library lanai and interior lobby from institutional spaces to warm gathering places reflective of the island of Hawai‘i. The plastic tables are gone, replaced with beautiful surfboard- and river-shaped tables made of Hawai‘i’s natural woods.

Two students sit in new furniture made of local woods, with coffee table of same woods. One student is on a laptop. In the back are windows looking out over the Library Lanai.
Two students at the new Library Lounge in the lobby of Mookini Library enjoy a new seating area with furniture made from local woods. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri for UH Hilo Stories.

The library lanai is only the first step in Sanchez’s vision. Among other ideas, he wants to build a multimedia production area and a recording space for local musicians to record and produce albums, and he wants to double the Hawaiian space and create a high-tech museum to connect people to the island. He’s already made available GoPros, ukuleles, and audio recording kits for students and staff.

Sanchez has also begun circulating Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras being used by art, marketing, and computer science students specifically and all students in general. He has opened the library to classes, both distance learning and in-person classes. He also has increased software offerings including AutoCAD, QuickBooks, Affinity Designer graphic design software, and more.

The new director has also increased outreach and collaboration with Hawai‘i Community College on both campuses, hosting Hawai‘i CC events in the library and on the lanai.

Inspiring others

Sanchez was appointed director of the Mookini Library in June 2018. He holds a master of science in library and information science from San Jose State University and a bachelor of arts in history from California State University San Marcos.

Sanchez, the child of Mexican immigrants, grew up in challenging circumstances in San Diego, Calif, but he remembers his childhood weekends were filled with visits to the library. “I grew up in a public library and I read like a madman,” Sanchez says. “It was the only difference between me and the other at-risk Mexican youth.”

He says that he sees his young self in some of the at-risk youth on Hawai‘i Island. “You can be disadvantaged at any level, but if you read a lot you can make it through college.”

Sanchez himself almost didn’t make it through college. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was 23 or 24, still an undergraduate, but working construction, with no interest, no direction, no sense of purpose.”

One of Sanchez’s fellow construction workers, a cement finisher in his 50s, inspired him to stay in college. “He was smoking a cigarette and drinking a tall boy [beer],” recalls Sanchez. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re good at books, you should stay in school. You don’t want to end up like me, do you?’”

Sanchez says his now deceased father was his role model and taught him how to see the valuable and beautiful aspects of ordinary moments.

“You have to find a few moments to pause and refocus and connect to that positive force,” says Sanchez. “My dad had inward happiness and joy, which I think is different than happiness. He knew how to care about what was important to you. I wasn’t always like that.”

Today, Sanchez is motivated by the desire to be a leader who inspires others while treating them with respect and dignity.

“I always want to listen and hear what others have to say,” he says. “My father once said, ‘Son, if you listen, every person has a good story to tell. Every person has beauty in them. You just have to take the time to see it.’ Trying to care about people is hard, especially when circumstances are difficult. I keep a gratitude list because if you don’t it’s easy to become ungrateful.”

One thing Sanchez is grateful for is having good colleagues at the library. “I work with really good people and I have good staff,” he says. “I want to continue to help my staff to grow and be the best they can be.”

Sanchez hopes that his story inspires hope in others in difficult circumstances. “There is no way as a child, a teenager, or a young man in my twenties, that I would have ever thought that this where I would end up, being a leader on campus,” he says.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.

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