Volunteer Spotlight: Mike O.

The Book Bank is a place that accepts everybody, and it’s defined as much by the people who come through it as by the free books. There’s David, who loves pop-up books, and Ron, who has collected Nancy Drew books for years. There’s the lady who takes bags and bags of books to give out to her neighbors, and there’s the guy who never talks to any staff, but who I once found reading on the floor under a tutoring table. (Some of our shelves are underneath the tables, so it takes extra effort to look at them.) Some of our regulars know the front desk volunteers and come on that particular day to check in with them; others bring their own books to read at the table in the front room.

And then there are the volunteers, who are the lifeblood of the Book Bank: it literally could not run without their efforts to sort, shelve, and pack books for the greater New Haven community to enjoy. The whole operation is reminiscent of Sisyphus, the King who, in ancient Greek mythology, annoyed Hades and was punished to continually roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down once he reached the top. At any given time, there are probably twenty-something volunteers coming in on weekday afternoons, rolling the proverbial stone up the mountain.

Mike is one of those volunteers. If you visit on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, you’ll probably see him sitting on one of the colorful chairs at the little kids table in the front room, sorting books. Of all the Book Bank volunteers, he works the most hours each week, and he’s been volunteering for just over five years, making him the second longest-serving Book Bank volunteer. Yet, before his advisor at the Fellowship Place told him about NHR, Mike had never heard of the Book Bank, despite being a bibliophile who worked at the UNH library for 17 years. According to him, “we’re New Haven’s best kept secret. You see the same people over and over again.”

Mike’s normally pretty quiet, but I very distinctly remember a visitor who asked me, when I was the Book Bank Director, a seemingly random question about ancient Greek History. I basically shrugged – I had no idea what the answer was – but Mike overheard and jumped in and had a whole conversation. As it turns out, Mike is incredibly well-versed in some of the topics he’s interested in, among them ancient history and languages. He can tell you all about Old English vs early modern English, he occasionally “brushes up” on his French reading, and he’s a bit of an autodidact: “I spent my life studying Latin and Greek on my own, but it doesn’t come up in conversation much.” He tells me that he’s taken home a lot of books over the years, including a good Ancient Greek dictionary, which he still has.

Unsurprisingly, when I asked Mike about his favorite book, the question was nigh impossible for him to answer. We tried to narrow it down to his favorite book by genre, and only got through two – his favorite poem is the Iliad and his favorite history is Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He loves Dickens novels, Shakespeare (“I couldn’t imagine not having Shakespeare”), and science-fiction, particularly Isaac Asimov. He told me how he found two of his old favorites the previous week – The Caves of Steel and The Naked Son: A Sequel, both of which he took home.

Despite all of the books he finds, Mike finds his greatest motivation for volunteering in fulfilling the Book Bank’s mission to get as many books out into the community as possible. When I asked him what he enjoys most about his time spent here, he said, “I basically come here for the same reason I worked at the UNH Library for 17 years – I believe in helping to put books in people’s hands, often literally.”