Why Community Spirit Is Just the Ticket

June 24, 2009

It's been nine days since Pres. Obama announced his administration’s nationwide “United We Serve” volunteer initiative, mentioning “reading to kids at your local library” as an example of how individuals and groups can boost local efforts toward improving education and community renewal, among other worthwhile projects. The library community, of course, is no stranger to harnessing volunteer energy; in fact, quite a few libraries big and small have passionate bibliophiles to thank for their beginnings. What’s different today about library workers heeding the president’s call to recruit constituents to roll up their sleeves is the economic upheaval that has pushed libraries across the country—most recently in Ohio—into crisis mode.

It’s abundantly clear that people love their libraries more than ever, and Wall Street ought to be envying the charts and graphs documenting the surge in libraries’ gate count and circulation stats. What better time to channel that library love into sweat equity and spin it into advocacy? That’s the meme of the visionary Carla Lehn of California State Library, who talked with American Libraries about that fiscally beleaguered state’s burgeoning library volunteer movement. Her nascent interest in retooling library volunteerism “"all came to a head” when she read the 2005 Long Overdue report issued by Public Agenda with support from the Americans for Libraries Council and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Lehn was particularly struck by this finding: “Americans who are active in the community and vote regularly are more likely to have a library card and favor taxes to support libraries. These are also the people who local politicians are most likely to listen to. However, these highly engaged citizens are generally unaware of funding issues that threaten library services.”

So: People who are most likely to support libraries at the ballot box are engaged in the community and more likely to get heard by local politicians. But those citizen-dynamos don’t realize how badly  libraries need them. Wow.

Another a-ha moment came when Lehn connected that “Long Overdue” finding to unrelated research indicating that, beginning with the graying baby boomer generation and continuing through successive generations, people are now volunteering at a greater rate than ever—but they are only interested in what they consider to be “meaningful work” related (unsurprisingly) to their hobbies and professional talents and skill sets. Long story short, about a year after Lehn started training California librarians to “expand the way we think about volunteerism and bring people on that can do things we can’t done otherwise,” the “Get Involved: Powered by Your Library” campaign launched its library link to the Volunteer Match database May 6. Within a month, Lehn revealed proudly, 100 California library systems (half of the public libraries statewide) had registered more than 500 volunteer opportunities. The project's goal? Getting 50 libraries involved within a year.

Not bad. The California initiative places libraries at the virtual heart of service opportunities by providing citizens with a one-stop-shopping link to projects that suit their interests and talents. So, participating libraries burnish their cred as community information hubs as well as gaining team players to keep the library humming. Obama's “United We Serve” project can do the same on a larger scale. What are we waiting for?