Know Your Librarians: Gabi Otto
All Library locations will be closed on Saturday, July 4 in observance of Independence Day.
Fans of reggae music in Kansas City know the name "Sista G" like their favorite Royals player or barbecue joint. She's the host of KKFI 90.1 FM's Sunset Reggae - at 16 years and change, the city's longest-running reggae radio show. But what many fans of her Sunday-night show don't realize is that when she's not spinning cool island sounds, this Sista is working with teens at the Southeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.
She may have dreadlocks, but Gabi Otto (as she's known around these parts), hails from a part of the world known more for producing Riesling wine than Rastafarianism. Raised on her family's farm near Frankfurt in Michelsbach, Germany, Otto grew up milking cows, growing vegetables, and reading books from the only library in town, which was inside a Catholic church.
Since moving to KC in 1975, Otto has traded her provincial Bavarian origins for a deeply rooted place in the community around the Southeast Branch - and, through her work on the radio, all over town. Her listeners, in fact, often mistake Otto's German accent for an inflection that would be more fitting for a reggae DJ.
"People who don't know me assume I'm Carribbean or from Africa," Otto says. "I'm used to their looks of disbelief when they meet me."
Otto discovered reggae music as a student at the University of Kansas. An anthropology major, she nurtured her interest in Carribbean culture during a two-month independent study in Jamaica, researching the tradition of midwifery.
Her visit occurred not long after Bob Marley's death from cancer at the age of 36. "You could tell everyone was still mourning," she remembers.
But more than anything, it's the positive, unifying message of reggae that appeals to Otto. It's a sentiment that permeates her work at the Library.
Otto's first position was in Outreach Services in the basement of the old Main Library at 12th and McGee. From there, she moved to the Library's book kiosk at the Landing Shopping Center on 63rd and Troost. It was here, under the guidance of Carrie McDonald (the Library's current Outreach Manager) that Otto developed a values-oriented approach to serving customers.
"We worked elbow-to-elbow for seven years," McDonald says. "She's all about great customer service."
With little room in which to maneuver and a collection that required constant maintenance to meet customer needs, the tiny Landing kiosk provided Otto with a public-service launch pad, preparing her for life at the branches.
After the kiosk closed, Otto moved to the Southeast Branch, where - minus a brief, two-year stint at the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library - she has worked for the past 15 years, mostly with teens.
She has led book groups, organized craft and gaming activities, developed programs with organizations such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and, most recently, she's teamed up with Harvesters to serve meals to teens four days a week after school as part of the Library's Kids Cafe program.
Along the way, Otto joined the board at KKFI and took over the reggae show that her husband, Keenan Gentry ("Brother K." to fans), had been hosting.
Though she characterizes herself as "permanently a teen," when it comes to serving younger patrons, Otto is more than just a librarian behind a desk.
"You are like a counselor," she says. "You're a friend who's there for them. If they have issues, they know they can talk to me, or if they need a dollar for the bus home, they can ask."
Bob Marley certainly would've approved.