Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can Do More, Volunteer

A thriving volunteer workforce can help libraries fill the gaping holes caused by funding reductions, staff cuts, and reduced hours

April 16, 2010

The world is in fiscal meltdown, with libraries feeling the heat. Layoffs and budget cuts in Philadelphia, threatened branch closings in Boston, reduced hours and services in Charlotte, North Carolina: These big stories overshadow how commonly we simply lose staff without being able to afford to replace them.

According to a survey conducted last fall by ALA and the Center for Library and Information Innovation library usage has skyrocketed while half of states have reduced library funding and nearly one-quarter of urban libraries have reduced open hours. How do we mend these often gaping holes? Volunteers are part of the answer, a solution that can be used by any library.

When we talk about our profession's foundation, we talk about S. R. Ranganathan, whose five laws of library science we have internalized. When Carol Simpson adapted his dictums for the 21st century in the April/May 2008 Library Media Connection, the fifth law-the library is a growing organism-was the only one not to change wording. And let me add one more law to Ranganathan's: Adapt or die. From one year to the next, sometimes one week to the next, we must change to survive. . . and to thrive. With an uncertain budget, much of our auxiliary work is done by volunteers.

They deliver materials to those who can't make it in. Volunteers work programs and events, and the quality of our output does not suffer. They deliver first-rate film presentations, book discussions, and chess tournaments particular to their backgrounds as film historian, Great Books Foundation member, and chess scholar. At our library they also do much of the day-to-day invisible work: reportrunning, displays, scrap paper, and so forth can easily be done by dedicated individuals simply eager to contribute.

Our core value of stewardship makes it our duty to manage our resources as effectively as possibly. These human assets are waiting to be tapped; it is our responsibility to become responsive to them.

How to manage?

Imagine managing 27 people. Did a gray hair just land on your piles of work? Every grand idea in the library world is met with a cynically weary "Nice; but how would I ever be able to do this tremendous amount of work by myself?" Especially in hard times, we are stretched thin-working extra public service desk shifts, filling in, and picking up all kinds of slack in order to continue operating in a way that looks good to our constituency.
Proper screening, training, and communication are essential for a thriving volunteer workforce that can bear much of this weight. With dozens of volunteers with different levels of training to juggle at any given time, the misperception that managing them is more work than it's worth is constantly validated throughout your stressful workday. A volunteer coordinator is the answer.

Envision yourself as this person. More loss of hair? Don't worry. You are not responsible for every little thing related to volunteers. Work with your colleagues. Just as your programming coordinator will not run every single program (as noted above, often volunteers are a better choice), there is no need for you to do "all things volunteer." Support is crucial-without a qualified professional helping with orientation, appreciation parties, and most important, screening candidates and checking references, a thief (or worse) could be loose in the stacks. Also, train your colleagues not only to thank volunteers (their only payment, so be generous!) but to treat them with respect and answer any questions in regards to the building, the profession, and the minutiae of their work. And if there are those that don't have your desire to work with the volunteers, inform them that you are always available for backup.

Invest in your volunteers. Train them heavily on the front end so there are no problems throughout their tenure. Micromanagement is the alternative. Your colleagues will thank you for their time saved. And you will be able not only to slough off mundane tasks, but to tailor tasks to the individual. I have had some volunteers who could actually augment productivity by pulling books from sophisticated reports, working on displays that require that certain touch, and coming up with ideas on how to improve the library. But where does this indoctrination begin? An orientation is crucial to success. Spending three hours with 20 people is obviously more economical than a total of 60 hours individually. Expectations in regards to the detailed level of work, knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System, dress code, and so on can be explicitly laid out along with signed agreements. Tour the building. Go over the work. Introduce them to staff. Promote your library, share facts, figures, trivia, the good work that you (and they soon will) do. In all of this, you are indoctrinating them, wedging them into your culture. Be flexible. As you talk, ask questions.

Not only ask them what types of tasks they would prefer (which helps with retention) but also use the opportunity to go over handouts.

Your handout packet should include not only your contact information on every page and general information about volunteering, but directions on how to do the major tasks a volunteer can do unsupervised (in my library's case, shelf-reading and computer lab assistance). Pore through Dewey, alphabetizing rules at the library, what to do when someone needs help with their will, or if unsavory content appears on a patron's screen.

We have two binders we give volunteers. One volunteer binder is filled with sign-in sheets. These are for keeping track of hours both to tout to your board and for community service statistics (many high schools require this;
partnering with them is a good thing to do).

The other binder is for shelf reading. Walk the stacks and break the library down into sections that take one hour to shelf read. Ours has 124 shelves, or 62 sections. Be sure to include high-traffic areas such as magazines and sections that may be messier than you think, such as reference (we recently found a minilibrary from all sections-fiction, nonfiction, movies, CDs-all stashed there). Assign at least two shelves per shelf-reading volunteer. Train them not only to arrange books perfectly and beautifully, telling them of the $50 they save the library each time they find even the least-expensive misplaced book, but to move on to the next section after double-checking their work. Surprisingly, shelf-reading is very satisfying to a large contingent of volunteers.

Other volunteers require more; Zen labor is not for them. Or they may enjoy being scheduled for a mix-one day shelf-read, the next computer lab, the third general labor. We have volunteers partnered with labor-intensive collections such as audiobooks and large-type books that travel quarterly in mini-libraries to local senior centers.
Others clean discs, fill displays, match missing pieces, work on special projects, and run reports of missing items.
These crucial tasks keep the library orderly and running seamlessly. Computer lab volunteers come with the expertise to help someone edit a Word document and attach it to e-mail, the patience to work with the inexperienced, and the wisdom to report deviant behavior. Whatever your volunteers do, they are individuals; so tell them that if they become bored and want to do something different, you are also open to change.

This is a crucial factor: Be laid-back but responsive. If a volunteer fails to show up, following up is appropriate. But since you have assigned nonessential nondeadline jobs such as watching the lab or organizing donations, the library will not collapse if Joe or Jane Volunteer fails to show. Let Jane know that her work is essential and to call in, just so you are aware and can account for it not getting done.

Be concerned and open, assume the best, and let the volunteers know that they are important to the library's success.

Giving thanks

I once helped a man I didn't know move out of his apartment. His only payment was a heartfelt "thank you." Since then, I have volunteered for the film festivals he organizes.

All for gratitude; meeting film directors like George Romero and Jack Hill was nice, but the fact that he understood that all he could afford was a sincere thanks was more than enough. I have found his philosophy to be incredibly useful in application to volunteers. They work for good feeling. No need for money, mugs, shirts, bags, or vendor swag (although a cupcake from the staff room adds to that sense of belonging crucial to retention). Further, like the orientation, an organized volunteer appreciation party is an economical way to institutionally reiterate what you have said countless times all year: Thank you!

A lot of library staff will grumble about volunteers doing our work at a time when so many of us are looking for jobs. Volunteers don't (and can't) replace us; they merely add to what we are able to do. A volunteer can search that CD collection that hasn't been touched in months (using a precise report run by an expert staffer). That DVD section that always seems to be a mess can be shelf-read on a regular basis.

That messy pile of CDs and DVDs can be finally matched and cleaned. This mindless manual labor generally takes us away from the "big idea" projects we really need to be working on to better ourselves and our profession.
With unemployment wavering around 10%, many people are looking for a structured place to connect and do feelgood work-anything to help mentally weather the storm.

A great way for libraries to survive the financial turmoil is to use these eager souls. Volunteers can be crucial to our operations, our standing in the community, and our ability to seamlessly accomplish all of our "invisible" work.

From repairing that long out-of-print DVD to filling a display, volunteers can make us look good while making themselves feel better about their situation. Success comes not for the library alone. Volunteers thrive. Although it's rare, one got a job at our library. Now among our best shelvers, his hard work earned him a rookie of the year award and $50 gift card to a local business.

Another was hired by a local nonprofit due to the fact that he had been working here- a great "résumé enhancer," as he put it. Young volunteers benefit even more by gaining this valuable résumé-creating experience, while we exploit their digitalnative skills to modernize the library. Others find this their place to connect, contribute, and collaborate; serve society; or support a nonprofit. A teen, pressured by his parents to excel, loves the Zen of cleaning discs and had a ball putting up decorations for a holiday he doesn't even celebrate.

It is all about selflessness, but in a quiet, subtle, beautiful way where by serving each other, we serve something greater than ourselves: the community. The judicious use of volunteers allows us to serve the community more efficiently. Incorporating them into our functions creates a seamless connection between us and the community, when their friends and neighbors walk through the door and are pleasantly surprised to see a thriving library, despite hard times.

Alan Jacobson ( is a volunteer coordinator, teaches computer classes, and leads film
and book discussions in his capacity as librarian at Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library.



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