Volunteers in libraries

One of the more unusual challenges of my job as a librarian is managing my large group of volunteers.

Using volunteers in libraries is a relatively new innovation; many librarians and professionals are worried that their jobs could be eroded by unpaid staff.  It has been a major issue in CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) recently, featuring heavily in their professional publications.

Despite this uncertainty, due to the current economic climate, volunteers in libraries are increasing but not always with an underlying volunteer policy or preparatory work on how to best link their skills and the organisational goals.

The Mining Institute has used volunteers in the library for over four years, starting with just a few trustees doing a bit of cataloguing, through to today with around 70 people doing a range of different tasks.  To try and learn the best practice (a new necessity for librarians in training?) I am doing an NVQ level 5 in the Management of Volunteers and I have learnt a lot of useful ideas and how to formalise some of the things we were already doing to some extent informally.

I would be interested to know how many other libraries are using volunteers and how they are overcoming the challenges involved.  If you have any experiences, please do post a comment or link.



Filed under Questions, Volunteers

11 responses to “Volunteers in libraries

  1. Jo Wright

    I use volunteers consistently through the arts but mostly young people. I find it’s about motivating them to fulfil their interests principally but making sure that they have sufficient training etc. is a challenge

  2. Ellie

    Here at the Scottish Mining Museum we have a collection of approximately 20,000 mining related books. The library is not generally open to the public, although it is frequently used by researchers from family historians to academics by appointment, and under the guidance of our extremely knowledgeable volunteers.

    We have four volunteers who come in regularly on a Thursday and look after the library, cataloguing and classifying books, identifying duplicates and facilitating public access. Given our extreme shortage of staff and lack of library-knowledge among the staff we do have, our volunteers essentially keep the library running, and without them it would be an unused and stagnant resource. Having been involved in the mining industry themselves, they also bring a vast amount of personal knowledge and genuine love to the job.

    You mention using volunteers in libraries as a relatively new concept – our longest serving library volunteer is just about to celebrate his 20th anniversary with us!

    Our library volunteers are absolutely invaluable, and I cannot sing their praises enough. But of course, it isn’t always easy. For one thing, I am new to this organisation, have very little knowledge of librarianship and very little mining knowledge, and I am the only member of staff involved with the library. While I am more than happy to bow down to our volunteers’ knowledge and experience, I struggle to offer guidance when they need it, and yet I have a duty to do so, and have ultimate responsibilty for the library and its users.

    Our volunteers come in for one day a week. We encourage researchers to arrange appointments for that day, but they can’t always do so, and often they turn up unannounced, and it is difficult and indicitive of a poor level of service to turn them away, although this does sometimes have to happen.

    Our current volunteers cannot be here forever. They have outside live and other commitments, and they are, sadly, not getting any younger. When we lose them, we lose one of our greatest assets. Recruiting new volunteers to work in the library is not as straightforward as it may sound. There are people out there who would like to do the work, but who don’t have the expertise and who will require training and supervision. We just don’t have the staff capacity to do that at the moment. The current volunteers can do this to some extent, and indeed will be doing so over the next few weeks, but they have their plates full enough with their regular work and we absolutely must not exploit them. Accommodation in the library is also difficult. We have limited desk and computer space making adding additional bodies complicated.

    Even if we do manage to train up a new generation of volunteers to staff our library, hopefully extending its opening hours and also providing for the future, they won’t have the long service and experience that means I don’t currently feel any need to supervise or check up on the current generation. They also won’t have the knowledge of the collection and of the mining industry that allows the current gang to answer enquiries in a heartbeat, where others could spend literally days trawling around to find the right resources and information.

    • If I can offer any librarianship help Ellie, do not hesitate to ask! We had a similar problem with limited desk and computer space so we decided to expand into an office downstairs as well. Computers we had donated from Learning Tree and various other organisations.
      I agree that recruitment and training is difficult, especially as they tend not to have much relevant experience. I’ve found that thorough interviews at the recruitment/induction stage can help a great deal by finding out what their aims for the placement are in advance.
      I also agree that many people don’t realise how much training and supervision that volunteers (especially new ones) do require!

  3. Caroline

    We currently use volunteers in a very limited capacity. We have a list of library & Board members whom the Librarian contacts when we need people to help steward lectures of stuff envelopes for a mailout.

    As we are a private subscription library currently struggling to raise funds there are concerns that if we start using volunteers for more “library-based” work this will be used as an excuse to reduce the number of paid staff even further (reflecting concerns in many public libraries). Also, although we realise that they could be of great benefit to us, nobody at present has the time to arrange proper training & supervision for them.

  4. Lauren Prince

    From my experience of working with you at The Mining Institute and your volunteers, I know that you are doing an excellent job of balancing the volunteers’ needs, training provision and providing a variety of interesting roles for them to get involved in. I look forward to working with you again in the future!

  5. Sarah

    the university library at Cambridge relies on volunteers quite a bit. by far the majority of them are actually retired members of staff who don’t want to leave, and who come in one or more days a week. they often do indexing of obscure donations and collections that just wouldn’t get done otherwise. the other category are people trying to retrain as librarians or archivists, who want to get some work experience. they are trickier because they need more training and organising by their supervisors, and are never allowed work with readers. its debatable in some cases whether what the library gains from it is worth the hassle of setting up work for them and training them.

  6. Pat

    Hi Jennie,
    > I am a volunteer in a library, but my experience is
    > probably not like the ones you are managing. I’m a retired,
    > qualified librarian, and I now do a couple of afternoons a
    > week at the university library where I used to work. It was
    > my own suggestion, and I’m doing two different things. One
    > is cataloguing a backlog of donated material which had
    > acccumulated over many years and was considered a low
    > priority. If I weren’t doing it, I think it would still be
    > stashed away in the basement. The other one is cataloguing a
    > bequest of children’s books for our Children’s Collection –
    > much more enjoyable, lots of GO books, currently working my
    > way through EBD. As an ex member of staff I was welcomed
    > back to do this work, and I enjoy keeping in touch with
    > colleagues. I wasn’t the first to do this, but I think so
    > far all who have done this have had a particular
    > expertise/subject knowledge, and have chosen to do it,
    > rather than the library specifically asking for volunteers,
    > which I doubt if they would want to do

  7. Helen Wright

    Having been a volunteer at the Mining Institute I know exactly how essential volunteers can be to the efficient running of an organisation. However it is a worry that volunteers taking on so much responsibility means fewer paid opportunities for people struggling to get into work – particularly in these troubled times!

  8. Tori

    My main use of volunteers was in a school library- my student librarians. I couldn’t have run the library without them, in fact when I first started they trained me in the day to day running and how to sue the computer system. However, ther were problems. One of them started stealing money from us to pay off bullies, others messed around and had to be let go. One lad who was fairly good had a habit of trying to discipline the other students using the library if they misbehaved which caused a lot of problems. If icould get them to stick to tasks like photcopying, library stationary shop and issue and return of books at busy times they were great, it was when they started to branch out that most problems occurred. Bullying was an issue too. They would get teased/bullied for helping. this bothered some more than others, but meant that in the 10 monthis I worked there, I had quite a hight turnover and found it very difficult to attract new volunteers from the students.
    BEfore this I worked as bookstrat plus officer for surestart scheme and one of my duties was to run a weekly book based event in the library, this was taken over by one of the parents if I couldn’t manage to do it. Short term it worked fine, but my impression is once I left and she was asked to take it on permantly whe began to struggle due to lack of support from Sure Start and the rest of the county bookstart team.
    Within the public librareis I have worked in volunteers ahve often been used to deliver books to the housebound, occasionally selecting the books for thier “old folks” themselves. As far as I know no one ever really managed tehm, but hte access librarian was meant to contact all the readers who received a housebound service once a year to check if they had any problems/were getting the books they wanted etc. this was as near to any supervision of volunteers that that got.

  9. librarianliz72

    I’ve found that CILIP offers some useful advice and guidance at:
    There has also been articles recently in CILIP Update and Gazette which you can access if you’re a CILIP member through their webpages.

    Hope this helps,

  10. Sandra Hillyard

    It’s really interesting to see volunteer opportunities in a library. My experiences with volunteers have been as a volunteer manager in a small charity for people with sight-loss, but also as a volunteer centre officer assisting volunteers to find suitable opportunities and helping organisations to develop opportunities, good practise and recruit new volunteers. I am also a volunteer myself on a management comittee.

    I think that these experiences have given me a good understanding of the huge benefits that involvement of volunteers can provide (both to the organisation and the individual!). Conversely I have a wealth of experience on what can go wrong! And an understanding of the challenges of managing volunteers – this must be particularly hard when strictly speaking it is not expected to be the main part of your role.

    I would imagine that you are probably in touch with the Volunteer Centre (Newcastle), but if not its worth getting in touch with them to see what support they can offer – especially around training, and best practice.

    Another helpful resource around best practice in volunteer management is Volunteering England’s website:
    If I can be of any further help, just drop me a line.

    Good luck with it all.


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