Local Heros – Top Shelf
One volunteer has spent 15 years shelving books and helping out at the P.G. Library.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
At first glance, Dana Otken seems distant, as if lost in a constant daydream. Messy black hair falls oddly in place over ever-thinking eyes.
Otken browses a picture book as he sits peacefully on the floor of the children’s section in the Pacific Grove Library. Bright sunlight pours over him through a giant window. He pauses, grabs another book from the cart and shelves it properly by the author’s last name.
Otken, 32, volunteered at the library a few days a week since he was in high school, more than 15 years ago.
“I’m willing to do it, I can do it and it needs to get done,” he says simply in his continuously wavering voice. “If nothing else, I learn where all the books go.
Every year Otken also helps to put up the library’s haunted house – some years he makes art for it. He’s missed the annual event only once. Senior librarian Lisa Maddalena says it probably wouldn’t get done without him.
“He always comes up with something really cool for the haunted house. He really does go above and beyond,” she says, adding Otken really values the library, where he was a regular visitor before becoming a volunteer. “Dana started to help out and has been my essential volunteer since.”
Shelving books may seem like a menial task, but Otken finds comfort in it.
“I don’t mind it and it helps someone else,” he says. “It’s more satisfying than other things I could be doing; I’ve never had too much luck finding things to do year-round that I like.”
Otken sits quietly on the floor, replacing each book on the shelf with deliberate care. Of the 100,000 books in the entire library, the children’s section holds one-fifth. Maddalena says keeping them in order is a difficult task because children don’t put the books back properly. Others avoid the job but “he’s an expert,” she says. “The children’s place is a mess to begin with and Dana has always organized it without complaint, even apologizing when he didn’t finish.”
Fellow librarian Ashlee Wright agrees.
“He’s wonderful!” she says. “He’ll just come in and works hard at keeping the children’s section together.”
Otken takes the bus from Marina. He’s also a math and computer science tutor and a teaching assistant at Monterey Peninsula College, but volunteering is the closest “long-term job” he has ever had.
Wright hints this may be because Otken finds solace inside the walls of the library.
“It gives me a surrounding where I feel at home,” Otken says. “The library is a place where I feel more myself.”
When asked why, he says it’s because he can be himself in a familiar place. As if pondering the question further, Otken seemingly changes the subject completely: “Have you read much about cats?”
Caught a bit off guard and curious to where he is going, I reply “no.”
“A cat’s home is a group of disconnected areas,” he says. “And this library is like a disconnected area for me.”