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Do’s & Don’ts of Supervising Library Volunteers

by on July 5, 2019

Whether you work in a small rural library, a multi-branch urban system, or somewhere in between, chances are you rely on the work of volunteers. Volunteer workers make the library world go ‘round, and it is important for supervisors to cultivate good relationships with volunteers and to ensure that volunteers are adequately prepared to perform their job duties. Here are some tips for making the most of your volunteer workforce for the benefit of staff, volunteers, and patrons alike.

Do: Set clear guidelines and expectations
It is important to be up front with your volunteers about their roles and responsibilities. Just as you would do for paid staff, create a job description for each volunteer role, and talk with prospective volunteers about their skills and interests as they relate to this role.

On the policy end, determine how the role of volunteer differs from that of paid and professional staff, and communicate that distinction clearly to both staff and volunteers. Many libraries will not allow volunteers access to staff computers, for example, in the interest of protecting sensitive patron information. Create a volunteer manual and present it to each new recruit during the onboarding process so that library policies are communicated from day one.

Don’t: Hold volunteers responsible for essential library services
Depending on your library’s funding structure and staffing needs, you may find it necessary to recruit volunteers to perform tasks that are usually reserved for staff: opening and closing the library, staffing service desks, running programs, and more. If you do not have enough paid staff to perform these tasks, and must assign them to volunteers, be sure to have a contingency plan in the event a volunteer is unavailable for their scheduled shift

Volunteers are, of course, not being paid, so library staff should be flexible and understanding in the event a volunteer needs to be absent, arrive late, or leave early on some occasions. Adequate succession planning is also important, so that staff are not left stranded in the event a volunteer decides not to continue. Make sure paid staff are trained on volunteer tasks, so they can step in if needed.

Do: Hold your volunteers to the same standards as library staff
It is not uncommon for patrons to assume that all library staff are volunteers. Ultimately, it makes no difference to the patron whether the staff person they interact with is paid or not; they will remember the experience they had as a representation of the library. As such, it is crucial to ensure that volunteers understand the ethical underpinnings of our profession, including privacy of library records and freedom of access to information, and are sufficiently prepared to represent the library in the community. This may require some training, as many new volunteers will be unfamiliar with some of the tenets of public librarianship. If you have a volunteer running a book group, for instance, you will want to make sure they do not espouse views in the course of a book discussion which are incompatible with your library’s mission.

Don’t: Count teens out!
You probably know at least one librarian who started out as a teen volunteer or employee. Teen volunteers run the risk of becoming library lifers when they realize how rewarding and valuable a career in librarianship can be. Consider expanding your volunteer age requirements to include teens. Whether during summer vacation or all year round, teen volunteers can contribute energy and creativity to the library, often handling administrative tasks that free staff members up to work on more complicated tasks. This arrangement is mutually beneficial, as teens gain valuable work experience, volunteer experience that can help on college and employment applications, and, of course, VIP access to library resources.

Do: Prepare for the worst
Those of us who work with volunteers on a regular basis can attest that we’re constantly having our faith in humanity reaffirmed. However, not all volunteers arrive with the same altruistic intentions. It is the library’s responsibility to properly vet prospective volunteers to minimize the risk of harm to staff, patrons, facilities, and collections.

Many people volunteer at their local library to complete court-ordered volunteer time. You will need to determine whether short-term commitments work for your library. If your onboarding and training process requires a lot of staff time, you may want to establish a minimum time commitment to ensure that volunteers will stick around. Additionally, the offense that warranted the community service requirement may be a deal-breaker. You will not want to hire a volunteer with a history of theft, violence, sexual harassment, and/or assault. Be extra careful when recruiting volunteers to work with children and other vulnerable populations.

If your library lacks the funding or resources to perform criminal background checks, you may want to establish some other criteria for determining a candidate’s eligibility to volunteer. A thorough application process, involving references and multiple interviews, may be enough to help you select good candidates. Trust your gut and remember to act in the best interests of the library and its patrons when recruiting new volunteers.

Don’t: Forget that volunteerism is voluntary
Working regularly with volunteers, it can be easy to forget that they are there of their own accord and deserving of appreciation. Think about it: there are people in your community who love the library so much that they are willing to dedicate their free time to it, for no compensation. That is a gift that should be cherished. Whether on National Library Workers’ Day or any day of the year, remember to take some time to periodically let your volunteers know their work is valued.

Further Reading:

Driggers, Preston, and Eileen Dumas. Managing Library Volunteers, Second Edition.      American Library Association, 2011.