A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Benefits of Volunteers

by Melanie Lyttle and Shawn Walsh on January 3, 2017

In an earlier post, we talked about the challenges that can come with having volunteers in the library. The benefits of having volunteers, however, can be far greater than the obvious labor they provide. Sometimes having a volunteer program in a library is about much more than getting tangible aid.

If you were to ask people why they volunteer at the library, many may spout the lofty ideal you hope for, but it is often much more prosaic. It is a person who was laid off and wants something to do while looking for another job. It is a teenager who needs volunteer hours for a school club. It is a retiree who wants a reason to get up in the morning. It is a widower who has one day a week where he can see and talk to people and feel of value to someone again. The library provides these volunteers with direct benefits that make their lives better. Don’t take this lightly. This is just as important as the benefit someone receives from attending a more traditional library program like a book discussion, storytime, or cultural program. People need to be needed.

Each volunteer can bring a special gift to the library. Sometimes people are perfectly happy to sanitize storytime toys or put books in order because the rest of their week is busy and loud. Sometimes they make it their personal mission to keep romance books in order so everyone can find what they want quickly. You may be lucky enough to be the recipient of a retired school librarian who can pitch in reading stories or helping with summer reading when your children’s staff is spread thin. Sometimes volunteers are special needs people from the community who find that their abilities mesh well with some of the activities of the library. Sometimes volunteers are leading programs or providing to the library their expertise from years of work.

This is truly a gift. People who spent years in data entry or finance become the volunteers who spend hours on the library’s digitization project or tirelessly look for grant opportunities. Retirees can often be the best volunteers. Just because they stopped working every day doesn’t mean they don’t want to use the knowledge they had from many years on the job. Teenagers who start volunteering because they need service hours for something can frequently become the potential pool of job applicants for entry level jobs like paging. What a gift to know about a person’s work ethic and temperament before the hiring process begins.

Library volunteers are truly a gift. Treat them well and they are the best ambassadors the library could ever have. Just as library administration will talk with the staff about new programs or initiatives to gain buy-in and understanding from the staff, it is advisable to do something similar with volunteers. It isn’t necessary that they are privy to all the information a paid staff member would get, but if you are making a major change at the library, tell them about it before it happens. If they understand and buy into what is happening, they can be your most effective representatives in the community. Oftentimes people will give them more credence than paid staff because volunteers are choosing to be at the library. They can address misunderstandings or misapprehensions with correct information or simply provide the name of someone a concerned community member can talk to. When a library volunteer can say, “I don’t know the answer to your question, but Sally at the library who is there when I volunteer can help you out. Why don’t you come when I’m there and I can introduce you?” That is a powerful message to your community.

Remember: what you give to the volunteers is just as important as what they give to you. Respect and appreciation for what they do goes a long way. You may never know what positive impact you have on your library volunteers, but they will definitely have a positive impact on you and your library.

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