Magazine article American Libraries

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

Magazine article American Libraries

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

Article excerpt

The world is in fiscal meltdown, with libraries feeling the heat. Layoffs and budgets 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 (AL, Mar., p. 13), 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 Rooks Foundation member, and chess scholar. At our library they also do much of the day-to-day invisible work: report-running, 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, appreciationparties, 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. …

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