About the Authors
JESSICA LINK is Volunteer Coordinator and CHRISTINA RIEDEL is Downtown Branch Supervisor at Cedar Rapids (IA) Public Library. Contact Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Christina at email@example.com. Jessica is currently reading The BFG by Roald Dahl and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Christina is currently reading The Third Wave: A Volunteer Story by Alison Thompson and Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo.
Originally published in Mar/Apr 2016, PUBLIC LIBRARIES, VOLUME 55, NUMBER 2.
Jessica is currently reading The BFG by Roald Dahl and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Christina is currently reading The Third Wave: A Volunteer Story by Alison Thompson and Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo.
For public service staff, summers at the library are both exhilarating and exhausting. The increased demand for library services coupled with the excitement of the summer reading program are a welcome reassurance that libraries are still active hubs for literacy, lifelong learning, and community connections. However, with limited staffing budgets, libraries find their staffs stretched thinner than ever during the busy summer seasons.
In summer 2014, the Cedar Rapids (IA) Public Library (CRPL) anticipated this stretch of staffing resources more acutely than ever before. That May, CRPL was operating 94,000 more square feet than the previous summer after reopening its main facility following a devastating flood in 2008. Having also opened a full-service branch on the growing west side of the city, the library doubled its operational hours to two 68-hour facilities. With the addition of only thirty-five new part-time employees totaling 665 staffing hours, the library needed to implement a new staffing model to meet the demands of the library’s first summer in its new home.
Two new sources of human capital were developed to supplement the library’s traditional staff: (1) seasonal employees (seasonals) and (2) volunteers. Goals for the new staffing model were to alleviate the burden on staff, enhance the organization’s capacity to connect with the community, and expand outreach opportunities.
The following outlines how the library identified seasonal and volunteer roles, developed hiring and training processes, engaged community volunteers in new programs, and provided existing staff with training to facilitate a smooth adoption of the new staffing model.
Incorporate Seasonals: The Right Dose of Help at the Right Time
The specific purpose for the development of the temporary seasonal position was to decrease excessive demands on public service staff and provide additional programming support during the busy summer season. By working openly with the library’s union steward, library management was able to facilitate a shared understanding that these temporary roles would provide better fiscal solvency to protect funding for traditional, year-round library positions. The union steward also helped library management address limitations on tasks that the union felt would not be acceptable for seasonals to perform. This collaborative process expedited the implementation of seasonals while preventing grievances and adhering to the spirit of the union contract.
As a department within the City of Cedar Rapids’ local government, CRPL utilized a similar seasonal employee structure as their peers in the parks and recreation department. The positions were hourly, non-benefited roles and were not included in the library’s union. In 2015, the cost per hour for a seasonal employee was $8.25. The average cost of a traditional public service employee was $23.46 per hour (the cost of a full-time, benefited customer service associate (CSA) averaged with a part-time, non-benefited shelver). From a cost-savings perspective, this saved the library more than $43,800 in staffing expenses in the summer of 2015.
Determine Library Needs with Staff Input
Staff from all departments conducted a needs assessment to determine which summer-based tasks would benefit from additional seasonal assistance. This process of identifying library needs was critical in establishing staff support for working with the new seasonal staff.
Staff identified such core work components as helping with library events and programs; staffing the summer reading registration desk; providing logistical assistance and supervision to external customers utilizing library spaces (e.g., weddings, graduation parties, fundraisers); assisting staff with outreach programs; shelving media and children’s materials; providing general customer assistance such as giving directional information, helping customers use the self-check stations, and assisting customers with basic catalogue searches. Seasonals did not have access to the library’s ILS system. This limitation helped allay staff concerns about customer confidentially and data integrity.
In year one, the library hired five seasonals that could work up to forty hours per week. At the end of the summer, it was determined that the library had too many seasonal positions and most were not working the full forty-hour schedule. In the following year, the library reduced the number of seasonal positions to four. All seasonals worked nearly full-time over the course of the summer. Adapting the hours of seasonals on a summer-by-summer basis—and even a weekly basis within the course of the summer—provided the library with a level of flexibility that was not easily managed through a more traditional staffing model in a unionized environment.
Consider Employee Traits, Timelines, and Training for Successful Onboarding
Key characteristics sought in applicants included schedule flexibility, ability to adapt to a wide variety of duties, and personal initiative. The library has had considerable success hiring seasonals that work within a school system during the academic year. These seasonals quickly and capably related to all age groups and worked exceptionally well with youth. They also successfully worked independently, freeing up staff for other work and minimizing the need for constant supervision. Mature teens and collegiate students on summer break have also been reliable, hardworking seasonals.
Seasonal positions were posted with an “open until filled” end date. This allowed the library to continue to gather applicants after positions had been filled—a tactic that proved useful in year one when a seasonal left employment early in the summer and the library was able to quickly backfill the position from a pool of applicants.
The hiring timeline included a two-week training period for orientation and training as well as hands-on learning. Acknowledging that the library learning curve is steep and that working with the public creates many unexpected scenarios, training focused on educating seasonals on how to access resources when challenges presented themselves: asking fellow staff members or referencing manuals, posters, or cheat sheets. Trainers encouraged seasonals to seek support, thus alleviating concerns that they had to “know it all” for a temporary role with a limited training period.
Engage Volunteers: Community Partners with Purpose
For some libraries, incorporating community volunteers into their summer reading program might be standard practice. For CRPL in 2014, however, this represented a cultural revolution and a seismic operational shift.
After a twenty-year hiatus, the library’s volunteer program was launched in the spring of 2013. In its first year, the volunteer program successfully brought on more than 180 volunteers in many different operational roles. Staff quickly embraced volunteers stuffing summer reading prize envelopes and counting heads at programs, but concerns were still prevalent that volunteers shouldn’t provide direct customer service.
In the summer of 2014, the library began partnering with community volunteers to provide customer service in support of the library’s summer reading program. These new volunteer roles have focused on three areas: program promotion, the summer reading registration table, and summer meals outreach.
Volunteers Promote Summer Reading in Schools
A common concern at CRPL was the lack of resources to promote the library’s summer reading program in schools. Recognizing staffing limitations and opting to approach the challenge from a different angle, the library responded to the need by tapping into short-term, project-based volunteers.
The catalyst for the project was the community’s existing United Way Day of Caring, an annual event that connects local corporate employee volunteers to nonprofit agencies in one-day service projects. Through Day of Caring, the library recruited and trained corporate volunteers to present a short skit and deliver summer reading promotional materials to area schools. In May 2015, twenty-four volunteers visited more than 3,900 students in eleven schools. Since its inception in 2013, the Day of Caring summer reading outreach project has made it possible for the library to promote its summer reading program to more than 9,000 students in a fun, interactive way.
Volunteers Lead the Summer Reading Registration Table
Historically, the summer reading registration table was staffed entirely by paid library employees. In the summer of 2014, volunteers covered the desk a total of 181 hours each week. This translated into a savings of more than $4,600 per week compared to the prior year (based on the cost of a full-time, benefited CSA averaged with a part-time, non-benefited CSA). Additionally, this allowed the library to reallocate these highly trained staff members to provide more customer service in other areas. This transformational shift in the library’s staffing model was made possible due to three main areas of support: (1) partnerships, (2) effective volunteer training, and (3) dedicated resources to volunteer management.
Cultivate Strategic Partnerships
In its first summer working with volunteers CRPL developed partnerships with the Foster Grandparent Program and the AARP Senior Community Service Employment Program to work with dedicated older adult volunteers. These volunteers were the foundation of the library’s new volunteer role at the summer reading registration table. They quickly demonstrated to staff that they were a reliable workforce, capable representatives of the library’s values, and passionate about engaging young readers. Culturally, these partnerships led the way to thoughtfully expanding volunteer roles in providing direct customer service.
Develop Effective Training
As a short-term, summer-only volunteer opportunity, the summer reading registration table was an ideal fit for youth volunteers, educators on summer break, families looking to volunteer together, and collegiate students. However, given the short timeframe of the opportunity, the onboarding process for these volunteers had to be quick and efficient to maximize their gift of time and promptly meet the library’s immediate needs. Volunteers needed to understand the library’s overall philosophy in working with the community, the structure of the summer reading program, the basics of good customer service, how to transfer customers to staff, and how to use the technology required for the online summer reading program registration process.
The library utilized its existing bimonthly new volunteer orientation to provide volunteers with the basics of library operations, values, customer service skills, and team expectations. Additionally, staff developed training for the summer reading registration desk volunteer role that (1) outlined the purpose and structure of the summer reading program, (2) trained volunteers on how to register participants and update their reading progress, (3) provided hands-on practice sessions in the registration software with test-participant data, and (4) answered frequently asked questions from customers about the program. With several trainers and flexible staffing, trainings were booked as frequently as needed and included multiple new volunteers per session. This made for a swift onboarding process for new volunteers during the busy summer schedule.
Invest Resources in Volunteer Management
Cultivating partnerships and onboarding new volunteers takes time. Since developing the volunteer program in 2013, CRPL has strategically dedicated resources to volunteer management including a full-time volunteer coordinator and a part-time administrative assistant. The return on this investment per week in the summer reading registration table volunteer role alone was 181 volunteer hours for fifty-nine staff hours in 2014.
Understandably not every library can staff a volunteer program to this level, but identifying a point person (staff or volunteer) to cultivate community partnerships and manage the process of bringing on new volunteers will have a significant return on the time invested.
Volunteers Run Summer Meals Outreach Program
In addition to supporting the library’s traditional summer programming, volunteers also made possible the launch of a new summer outreach program in 2015. In partnership with other local organizations hosting a free children’s lunch program, the library developed a pilot outreach program to take its resources to children with barriers to accessing the library.
Led by the library’s AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) member, five volunteers brought books and LeapPad tablets over a twelve-week period to a community center that served a free lunch to neighborhood children. More than 290 children received over 440 books donated by the Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library and used more than 4,350 minutes of tablet time at the off-site location.
A survey of children participating in the program reported that
- 52 percent did not have a library card;
- 88 percent were not registered for any summer reading program; and
- 81 percent did not participate in any other library programs outside of the summer meals outreach program.
Barriers existed on both sides of the equation for these children; they couldn’t get to the library and the library’s staffing limitations prevented the development of new outreach opportunities. Due to the expansion of library outreach by the VISTA member and the volunteers, these children were able to access many of the library’s resources in their own neighborhood with essentially no additional library costs.
Support Staff—Build on a Strong Foundation
Since opening two new facilities in 2013, the library had strategically realigned its staffing resources for more effective scheduling based on circulation statistics, door counts, program attendance, and computer usage statistics. Through automation and streamlined processes, the library had already implemented efficiencies to better balance task-based operational duties and provide active customer service. Many of these prior adaptations also led to the successful addition of seasonals and volunteers.
Create a Flexible Staff with Cross Training
CSAs are the majority of the library’s public service staff. The CSA role is a generalist position and covers all library departments and service desks, back of house duties, phone service, and programming at both locations. By cross training CSAs, the library developed a flexible pool of resources to accommodate shifting needs within all departments at each library. This allowed for more rotation during shifts which gave staff variety in their work day and opportunities to work both behind the scenes and with the public. The generalized workforce fostered an inclusive, team-focused working environment that shared knowledge, resources, and job duties—a prime environment for incorporating new seasonal and volunteer roles.
Facilitate Consistent Training for New and Existing Staff
Over the course of three months in 2013, the library added thirty-five new employees to its thirty-three existing public service employees. The experienced staff played a key role in designing and delivering a robust training program. Additionally, trainings were developed for existing staff to accommodate new facilities and processes as well as reinforce consistent training across the organization.
In 2013, the library developed a new training program with several modules and training checklists. The trainings included a refresher on standard processes and procedures; an overview of core competency requirements; and messaging about the library’s mission, vision, and values. A variety of training methods were employed including self-guided reading, informal check-ins with trainers, formal training sessions, and hands-on practice.
A critical component of the trainings was the creation of staff experts known as mentors. These experts received in-depth training on targeted areas of library service including library card making, processing incomplete materials, meeting room reservations, and so forth. Mentors then led individualized trainings for new hires and refresher group trainings for existing staff. This promoted staff leadership and created a team of experts that could assist new staff with unexpected questions in real time on the service floor.
The consistent training model ensured that staff at all levels understood the library’s processes and culture, and enhanced a peer-supported atmosphere. In turn, volunteers and seasonals benefited from the staff’s overall uniformity in answering questions and modeling the organization’s culture.
Communicate New Roles and Responsibilities
As the library added seasonals and volunteers to its traditional staffing structure, it was crucial to outline and communicate the roles and responsibilities of these new team members. Job descriptions and duties lists were developed and shared for each volunteer role and for the seasonal positions. Information about these new positions, along with a summary of the summer reading program and related events, were presented to staff in various trainings, meetings, and written communications. This set the stage for the new staff hired in the fall of 2013, many of whom had not worked at a library before nor experienced the crunch of a summer schedule at the library. These trainings also allowed staff to ask questions and gave library leaders the opportunity to address concerns.
In 2015, based on feedback from the previous year, library leadership used multiple means of communication to address any overarching questions from the first year of the new staffing model. Primarily, traditional staff questioned what volunteers and seasonals were to do during less busy times of their shifts. For seasonals, a poster outlining different tasks that could be completed during slower shifts was posted in staff areas. For volunteers, training was provided to both staff and volunteers that detailed what was and was not permissible at the summer reading registration desk when volunteers were not helping customers. Explanations were given to help all parties understand why there were differences in expectations for volunteers versus for staff: length of service and shifts, cross-training limitations, primary focus of duties, and physical limitations. This clarification of volunteer roles and the reasoning behind them helped better communicate expectations and guidelines to both volunteers and library staff.
Over years, the tremendous stretch of the library’s diminishing staffing resources during its busy summer season had resulted in an increased demand on personnel. Since integrating volunteers and seasonals with the library’s skilled staff, CRPL has cultivated a better balance for staff during its peak season, thus empowering the entire workforce to stay more energized and evenly engaged throughout the year.
Library leadership has been transparent with traditional staff that the intent of the new staffing model is to supplement its professional staff during the library’s summer season. While not a replacement for professionally trained and compensated staff, volunteers and seasonals are a creative and resourceful way to economically and effectively provide additional assistance to staff and customers. The strategically aligned work of CRPL’s staff, seasonals, and volunteers has enhanced the organization’s ability to make connections with the community and expanded library services to children with barriers to accessing its facilities.