Volunteers: What Supervisors Want

Before I retired, I worked in base (similar to public) libraries and academic libraries. In both cases, we used volunteers.  Sometimes the volunteers were family members and other times they were special duty soldiers (SDs) who were temporarily assigned to the library because they were awaiting reassignment or had some type of physical reason that they needed to be assigned limited duty.

People volunteered for a variety of reasons. Some high schools required their students to complete a number of volunteer hours as a pre-requisite for graduation. (They made great volunteers.) Occasionally a parent would want a child to get work experience or spend part of the summer doing something constructive, especially if the child considered him or herself too old for the day camp run by the base youth activities. A few adults really liked the library and wanted to help make it a better place.  The SDs were assigned to the library and did not have a choice.

Take away one: Do you want volunteers? If so, what kind of volunteers do you want? How much time commitment do you want your volunteers to make? How much training can you provide, if needed?

In the base library, the most popular assignment was usually working the circulation desk, back in the days when books were still stamped and checked out manually. The ability to alphabetize book cards by the author’s last name, stamp the book with the date due, add the book to the correct borrower’s card, and separate the checked out books from the books being returned for check in  were all prized. The volunteer also had to be polite to all customers and willing to help them find materials or fetch a staff member to help them. There was not much of a dress code.

Take away two: Attention to detail is very important when filing manually. An item checked out to the wrong person or incorrectly could remain an issue indefinitely. It affected the library’s ability to determine who had checked an item out or whether  it had actually been returned.  Customer service is also important. A patron should not be kept waiting because  a volunteer prefers to visit with his/her friends at the circulation desk.  

Shelf reading (putting the books back on the shelf in Dewey Decimal order) was a frequent volunteer task and one of the most unpopular because it was boring and could be dirty or uncomfortable. There was a lot of standing and stooping as the shelf reader progressed from the top to the bottom shelf for each book case and then had to repeat the steps on the next book case. Both the teenagers and the SDs could be relied upon to avoid this assignment whenever possible.

Take away three:  A volunteer can be requested to do a job, but an unwilling volunteer will not do the job well or for very long before deciding this is not a good match. Both the volunteer and the organization need to benefit from the transaction.  Sometime explaining the value of the task may make a temporary difference, but not if the volunteer really does not want to do it.

At Ft Story, we had SDs for varying periods of time. Sometimes they were problem soldiers that the first sergeant wanted to temporarily reassign.  Other times they were soldiers with “profiles” that limited their abilities to do their military jobs. These soldiers often had medical appointments.  The soldiers were all young and became very adroit at working the system. Many of them had reasons why they could not be at the library on a particular day or by a specific time. One of them had physical therapy twice a week for two hours. He continued to vanish during those scheduled times long after the PT ended (we found out afterwards.)

Take away four: As a supervisor, find out what you can realistically expect from any volunteer. If the volunteer is part of a program, find out who the program counterpart is. Is that person willing to support you, if there is a question about the volunteer’s job performance or attendance?  This is important for both SDs (the military) and special work programs for disadvantaged people.  (I had both excellent and problem volunteers/employees paid by some other program in both categories.)

At the National Defense University, we did not have SDs, but we did have volunteers. Some volunteers were library school students completing an internship. The interns were usually  good. They got professional experience and sometimes a job offer if their graduation coincided with the Library having a job vacancy. We had one volunteer who had already graduated but did not yet have a job. She was a friend of one of the employees and was such a chatty-Kathy that even her friend would escape to parts of the library where she was not allowed.  She was also a disaster as a volunteer–she took forever to complete any task and her friend would have to clean up the mess after the project was ended.

Take away five: Attitude and aptitude are often more important than actual skills or experience.

In both the academic and the base libraries, previously identified volunteer projects was always a good idea. What new project or event would you like to see happen, that the staff does not time to do? Can you partner with another department to provide training or an activity that would benefit both of you? Story hours, youth job experience, book clubs, literacy programs, technology petting zoos, seasonal displays, local celebrations or anniversaries are all opportunities for the library to shine or perhaps use volunteers.

Take away six:  It should not take more staff time to set up a volunteer opportunity than it does for the volunteer to complete the task.  The opportunity should benefit both the library and the volunteer.  A variety of previously identified projects offer the volunteer a choice on things that you would like to see happen.

What was your experience either as a volunteer or as a supervisor of volunteers?

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