Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Volunteers in Libraries: Program Structure, Evaluation, and Theoretical Analysis

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Volunteers in Libraries: Program Structure, Evaluation, and Theoretical Analysis

Article excerpt

Volunteers have had a major impact on libraries throughout U.S. history. The rapid changes in the information world of the last decade serve as a catalyst for evaluation of library programs including those for volunteers. This article offers a brief history of volunteers in libraries and discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of instituting a volunteer program as well as implications based on library implementation of new computer technologies. The authors argue that a robust volunteer program will help a library in developing a consultation model of communication, thus providing more effective public services.

The library belongs to our community and everyone in it. The chance for people to contribute their time and interest as volunteers is a way the library acknowledges that this is the community's library." (1) Volunteers have experienced a long and fruitful tenure serving American libraries. Their roles and responsibilities have been as diverse as the volunteers themselves. As society continues to experience an information revolution, it is important to reevaluate the role of volunteers in libraries. Libraries must reassess whether it is advantageous to incorporate volunteer programs at all and address issues such as volunteer demographics, motivation, management, work tasks, and reward and recognition. Two things are central in this process: the commitment to synchronizing the volunteer program philosophy with the overarching library mission, and grounding volunteer program structure in solid information and library science theory. Existing technological changes and forecasts for the future must both be taken in account as libraries make judgments about volunteer program structure. As the information services world continues to move toward practice based on users' needs and the importance of community networking, society will see libraries incorporating more vibrant and expansive volunteer programs.


Volunteer efforts are often characterized as the historical cornerstone of library advancement. (2) Prior to the 1930s, volunteers provided many lending services, especially to homesteaders in the west. Starting nationwide in the 1930s, professional staff coordinated services but volunteers widely operated libraries, and in every community there were many people interested enough in the library movement to devote a considerable amount of their personal time and effort. (3)

The 1970s marked the union movement in libraries. In the early union movements the main issues of conflict were salary, fringe benefits, grievance procedures, and working conditions. The unions later targeted volunteers, claiming that they usurp paid library positions and serve as replacement workers during strikes. (4) In 1975, unions rejected the policy of using New York volunteers at circulation desks so libraries could be open on weekends. Soon union contracts forbade the use of volunteers in the New York Public Library system. (5) The American Library Association (ALA) reacted to the conflicts between employees and volunteers by passing a series of guidelines. The two central principles emanating from these guidelines were that any volunteer program must have the prior approval of the staff and governing body of the library, and that volunteers should not supplant or displace established staff. The problem was (and continues to be) that the guidelines did not specifically address any duties or responsibilities where volunteers may likely violate the guidelines. (6) Despite this potential barrier erected by ALA, the number of volunteers in libraries ballooned throughout the 1970s, and "volunteer programs were firmly established as a part of the American public library scene by 1980." (7)

The passage of time has produced great changes in the groups of Americans who participate as volunteers but has not diminished the importance of volunteers in libraries. …

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