Rotary honors longtime UW Libraries employee, volunteer, book lover

March 18, 2015

UW-Madison Libraries volunteer James Dast

James Dast, a longtime volunteer and former conservator at UW–Madison Libraries, is being honored for his work with Friends of the Library.

Photo courtesy UW Libraries

James Dast is being honored with the Senior Service Award given by the Rotary Club of Madison, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries announced today. Dast, who retired as the Libraries’ conservator in 1996, has spent the past 30 years volunteering with the Friends of the Libraries. He will be honored at a Rotary luncheon today.

“The UW–Madison Libraries is fortunate to have staff that are as dedicated to the mission of the libraries as Jim,” says Ed Van Gemert, vice provost for libraries and university librarian. “Few embody the dedication better than Jim. His impact on the Libraries has been immeasurable.”

Dast’s love for libraries can be traced back long before he ever set foot on the UW–Madison campus, or in Memorial Library.

“Something deep inside me says that libraries are important,” Dast says. “Particularly, this library (Memorial). It’s part of a magnificent institution. I’m part of that, and I’m proud.”

Dast, a Michigan State University graduate who holds two master’s degrees — one in library science, and a second in the history of science — began his UW Library career in the Medical Library (W.S. Middleton Health Science Library). He says his calling to work as a librarian stemmed simply from his love of handling books. It’s a passion that shaped his career, but also drove him to help others find the same joy in books that he knows.

“All my adult life, I’ve loved to handle books,” Dast notes. “Now I have the opportunity to continue to handle books and do something I feel is beneficial to the libraries and to so many other people.”

While Dast formally retired in 1996, he has volunteered for the Friends Book Sale since its inception in 1985, when it started as a monthly event. In 1999, Dast joined the Friends’ board and in 2004 took over the operation of the book sale from John Toussaint.

“The book sale is a great way to help others get rid of books without wasting them,” Dast says. “And it’s a great way to help others attain books, expand their collections, and to help the book sellers and the Friends make money as well.”

Between its leaders, the Friends have enjoyed huge success with the book sale. Under Toussaint, the sale took in over $300,000. Under Dast’s leadership, the sale continued to flourish, and has now raised nearly $735,000. Dast says he wants to raise $1 million before retiring — again — and he’s well on his way. While he inches closer to that goal, those who have worked with Dast aren’t eager to see him head off into his second retirement.

“I think I speak for everyone when I say we certainly don’t want Jim to leave once he’s hit his goal,” Van Gemert says. “He’s welcome to stay around as long as he finds joy in his work.”

Preparing for the book sale is a meticulous undertaking. Dast works tirelessly, unpacking, sorting, and organizing thousands upon thousands of books for each sale. “I love unpacking the books when they come in,” says Dast.

Dast sifts through nearly 40,000 books before each sale, but only 15,000 make the cut. So what happens to the rest?

“I try to be instrumental in finding new homes for the remaining books. We don’t put many into recycling,” Dast says. “We send several hundred boxes a year to the Rotary-sponsored ‘Books for the World’ program.”

He oversees nearly 60 volunteers during the sales, and when it’s all over, he starts preparing for the next one.

When he’s not in Memorial Library, Dast lends his time and talents to Habitat for Humanity or spends time working outside near Beloit, helping his son clear brush or handle other needs. “I enjoy working outside,” says Dast.

Never straying too far from his passion, he also spends time repairing books at his home studio. “That’s really handling books,” he says.

When Dast learned he was going to be honored by the Rotary Club of Madison, his response was humble. Those who have worked with Dast through the years say he certainly deserves the honor.

“Jim Dast’s inspired leadership in the last 30 years has made the Friends Book Sale one of the most coveted book world events in the state of Wisconsin,” says Maria Saffiotti Dale, Friends of the Library Board president. “It is with deep gratitude and pride that the Friends join Jim in celebrating this honor.”

While Dast is not one to brag, nudge him a little and he’ll finally admit he’s done more than his share to earn this award.

“You know, maybe I deserve this award,” he says as he gazes over the piles of boxes in the basement of Memorial Library. “I guess a little recognition never hurts.”

— Natasha Veeser