Category Archives: Volunteers

“Down the Mine” – Orwell

One of the joys (or not, depending) of managing volunteers is that they often bring you things to read/see/admire that they feel should interest you.  In some cases, it’s their holiday photographs, but today it was an article by George Orwell.  I had no idea that Orwell had published an article entitled “Down the Mine” and it has some wonderful quotes explaining coal mining for the beginner.  My favourite is:

“Coal lies in thin seams between enormous layers of rock, that essentially the process of getting it out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice.”

He is hugely sympathetic to the physical demands of the work of the miners, and praises their strengths and abilities.  All in all, one of the better items I have been presented with to read, and I can recommend the volume of essays, entitled “Inside the Whale and other Essays”, as a introduction to mining as it was in the 1930s.


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CPD 23: Thing 22 – Volunteering

Thing 22: Volunteering to gain experience

Volunteering can be, and should be, a wonderful thing which benefits both sides – the organisation and the individual.  I currently manage 154 volunteers.  Yes, really.  They’re not all active right now, some are seasonal (in the summer they do the gardening) and others were short term placements.  But altogether we had 12,000 hours of volunteer time donated last year.  Generally there’s about twelve volunteers in per day, but it varies depending on projects.  Some also do work from home, although this can be tricky to set up.

Most of them have a single project/task that they’re working on such as proofreading an OCR’d volume or scanning in Tracts or typing out members lists.  Others have progressed to something more technical like trying to find the duplicate maps and take them off the database.  A few have reached almost managerial roles in training other volunteers and checking which Tracts have been scanned and which are to be done.  Others require me to have done some work before they can do some work (i.e. if I don’t get some cataloguing done then the labelling volunteer and the shelving volunteer are redundant).  And a few of them like to do different things every week.  They are more work for me obviously because you have to train them in more things, and remember what they did last week.

Sometimes it does make my head spin.  Just remembering everyone’s name is quite a challenge, never mind remembering what they do and don’t like doing and what they weren’t terribly good at doing…

I don’t have any issues here with replacing professional staff with my volunteers.  There has never been any other paid staff here.  There is barely enough money to pay me and their expenses,never mind another member of staff.  And the fact we’re a registered charity sort of helps as well in my mind for some reason.  Also, the majority of the jobs they are doing are additional.  I’m not saying I would never do them as a professional, but the chances of me finding time to do them are slim to none.  They are all bonuses and although they can help the basic functions of answering an enquiry and cataloguing, they’re not actually dealing with the public, or, crucially, any of their personal data.  I think even many public libraries have had “heritage” volunteers for some time and I would say our roles are very similar.

I deeply wish I also had time to be a volunteer as well as manage them.  I had just arranged to volunteer at Seven Stories when I got this job, and I blithely said “Oh, well, once I settle in, I can still come and volunteer a morning a week on flexitime!”  Suffice to say, it never happened.  And six years on, I still feel guilty about it!  But I only just have enough energy to come to work, go home, go to choir and do a couple of evening classes a week.  I just don’t have anything else left in the tank at the moment.  Maybe one day.  Or maybe it will have to wait until retirement!

I do volunteer for things on a more occasional basis.  To help at one off events for NE CILIP.  To host events here at the Institute too.  And I go and busk as part of my choir for charity every year as well.  Once you include rehearsal and travel time, that’s actually quite a lot of volunteering hours per year.

One thing I would never volunteer to do is work for free in a public library which had been handed over to volunteers.  It’s just undermining everything we, and CILIP, stands for.  Besides which, I very much doubt the whole system would last long.

Volunteers are great as long as you don’t have to rely on them turning up!  Their work has to be additional to the basic services of the building opening and functioning because, quite often, volunteers get a better offer for the day and don’t turn up.  Or they’re ill.  Or their children are ill.  Or it’s snowing.  Or the bus didn’t turn up, so they went home.  Understandably, they don’t (all – I am generalising here) make the same amount of effort to turn up as paid staff do!. There isn’t any penalty to them after all, if they don’t and the other options of finding paid childcare, say, or getting a taxi aren’t affordable because, fundamentally, they’re not getting paid…

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CILIP Big Day 2012

My resolution for the day was to try and tweet as well as make notes and listen.  Once I had figured out the wifi of course this was considerably easier (many thanks for @biblioluke for that one – proxy settings can be crucial…)

It was the first time that I’ve watched the tweets simultaneously with the speaker and it was really interesting to see the instant feedback from around the room.  When Ged Bell started speaking about how he valued volunteers in library the tweets were fabulous:

Everyone was unanimous in pointing out the huge number of potential problems in working with volunteers.  Now, may I say now, I am not against working with volunteers.  It would be very difficult in my current post if I was as I have over 110 volunteers on the books, with over 12,000 hours contributed on a voluntary basis last year.  This has all been built up over my six years here so you can see my commitment to our volunteer programme.

What I am very careful to point out however is 3 things:

  1. Volunteers are not free.  They require time, training, leadership, travel expenses and tea and coffee!
  2. All our volunteering is for “added value” projects – additional to what I can achieve as a professional.
  3. The basic functions of the library are not dependent on a volunteer turning up.

Some volunteers are as reliable as a paid member of staff.  Many others are not.  If I was in the same position as many charity shops, where I was dependent on volunteers turning up to be able to open the doors, I would be very worried indeed!

Training time is the other big issue around volunteers.  You can spend up to six hours usually getting them up to speed with the basics they need to know which is great if they go on to stay with you for six years (as some of mine have) but not so helpful if they don’t even manage six further sessions with you.  I can’t ask for a minimum commitment as many of them are jobseeking and obviously, if they get a job (or get put onto a jobcentre training programme…) then they have to leave with very little notice.  People’s lives and availability change.  That’s life in the voluntary sector.

After the controversy (deliberate I think – thanks for stirring Ged!) then Penny Wilkinson went on to talk about the Big Society to continue the theme.  I liked her comments about the importance of having a clarity of focus and a focus on outcomes rather than what you’re actually doing.  Definitely something to think about.  I also liked her thought on considering your ability to make an impact,even if you’re further away from direct contact with the collections and members of the public, you could actually be making a bigger impact on their experience of using your collections.  Her scary comment was “No one should be waiting for the funding tap to turn back on.  This is the new normal.”

Mark Taylor was up next to talk about Digital Access for All.  I was stunned and shocked to hear that only 72% (provisional figures!) of public libraries provide free wifi.  If every Wetherspoons can provide free wifi then I’m sure every library should be able to manage it!

Ann Rossiter had a more inspiring section to add about the Digital Public Library of America project who have the huge goal of making cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available free of charge to all.  In practical terms, this is going to mean a massive mass digitisation programme.   She asked, what about a National Digital Library for the UK?  And why aren’t we at the front, leading the way.  Because if we don’t do it, someone will do it to us – and there will be problems…

Then we had the usual break for refreshments (lovely lunch by the way, not to make non-attendees jealous or anything…) followed by a quick and painless AGM.  I did feel very stupid holding up a piece of card though.  Could we not press electronic buttons?  I was glad membership fees were being held at current rates although I agree with Emma Illingworth and Simon Barron (@SimonXIX) that I would prefer to see rates split above £17,501 for those over £30k and more even.  Higher rate tax payers could be an easy split to make.

We were welcomed back by Lord John Shipley who got a much more positive Twitter response:

Then time for Phil Bradley’s storming “you’re all CILIP!” presidential address.  Very “raise the rafters”, “you’re all advocates” and “lets not just save libraries but develop and improve them”.  It was great to feel inspired to fight, but I’m not quite sure where to start…  He was clear on getting out of your comfort zone and I can see that I need to step away from the nice cosy cataloguing and do that more.  He was also strong on making your library more embedded into your community and reaching the whole community, not just the users you have now, and improving that community.

I will say that, for once, I felt included by his speech – often, as a non-public, non-academic librarian, you can feel like an onlooker when people give “campaign, join together and fight” speeches but I did feel he really made an effort to make it inclusive for everyone, whatever their sector.  So ok, Phil I will do more advocacy – after all, it is also Thing16

The Twitter response (already on a high after Lord John Shipley) went through the roof:

The day closed on a very positive note with Annie Mauger and Phil handing out the Fellowship, Chartership and Certification awards.  By this point, many Tweeters were having phone battery death, but there was still some lovely messages of congratulations.  (It is also tricky to tweet whilst clapping…)

On an even more positive note, there was then free wine, more lovely sandwiches and even more lovely gooey cornflake-rocky road type dark chocolate cake.  Mmm.  And the wine gave me the confidence to do more real-life networking – excellent!  Not that Twitter is the only way to measure these things, but I now have sixteen more followers than I did before so I think that’s a pretty significant increase in my network.

Thank you for a great Big Day Out CILIP and @Toonlibraries!

And I’m counting this as Thing15 for this time around as well…

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Umbrella 2011 : Working with volunteers for the Summer Reading Challenge (E3)

Working with volunteers for the Summer Reading Challenge
Tracy Hager, Wiltshire

Tracy talked about her experience of using volunteers to run the Summer Reading challenge at Chippenham library in Summer 2010.  Volunteers are essential in order to make it possible to listen to the children talk about their books as there are around 1000 children reading 6 books each…

She received 33 applications from volunteers, and 28 actually took part totalling 425 volunteer hours.  Unfortunately 11 volunteers did not fulfill all their planned hours and there were 33 hours where they were completely stood up with no advance warning.  I can sympathise with that moment when the lack of a volunteer suddenly creates extra staff work to cover for the missing shift.  It’s a very frustrating moment!

When Tracy reached her “problems with volunteers” slide, the camaraderie in the audience suddenly increased…  All of us had experienced some or all of these issues I think, and it was a wonderful feeling to be with other people who understood.  Her listed problems were:

  • The ones who did not turn up on time or at all
  • The ones that were too shy or reserved to make the children feel comfortable
  • The ones that seemed to be doing it only for something to put on their CV or university application
  • The ones that did not ask questions and consequently made mistakes
  • It proved difficult dealing with these volunteers, making them aware of the difficulties they had given us, when they missed shifts

Tracy then illustrated these problems with some case studies, showing the ways she had tried to work with these volunteers for example she offered reminder calls for those who were chronically late.  One case study certainly rang home with me about those volunteers who bring their troubles with them and give you far more information than you want or need about their personal health and situation.  I also agreed with the following quote:

We agreed that it is incredibly difficult to manage volunteers in the same way one would an employee, as it feels inappropriate to be anything other than grateful when someone is giving their time for free.

It is very difficult to criticise someone’s work, even constructively and gently, when they are working for free to help you.  I must admit that I have been known to chicken out of the situation entirely but simply moving the volunteer onto a different, usually easier, task rather than spending time with them to improve their work on the original task.  This is partly because of the lack of time I have to spend with each individual and partly my personal dislike of criticising people’s efforts.  I always feel it must be largely my fault for not training the person more thoroughly initially!

Another useful tip was sending out evaluation forms in thank you cards.  This is more appropriate for a short term, fixed project than for ongoing volunteers as I find you rarely know in advance when they’re leaving but it was a very nice idea.

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Umbrella 2011 : Using volunteers in libraries – the Dorset experience (E4)

Using volunteers in Libraries – the Dorset experience
Tracy Long, Dorset

Tracy first gave us a useful introduction to Dorset for those of us who are geographically challenged!  It is the  smallest of shire counties, mostly rural with small towns along the coastline.  It has a population of 400,000 with many older people. There are 34 libraries, which is quite high per head of population and these are centred in market towns and some villages.  They have very varied opening times from 45 hours a week to just 6 hours a week.  Dorset also have 259 library volunteers, contributing 8500 hours per year.

The volunteer hours add value, and improves the services they can offer, providing things that they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources available.   This includes:

•Home Library Service – ran in partnership with WRVS
•Summer Reading Challenge volunteers
•Friends of Libraries Groups
•Community Supported library opening hours

Home Library service
This is a partnership with WRVS with whom they have a Service Level Agreement.  Their demographics mean this service is particularly important to Dorset.  All of the administration of the volunteers has been outsourced to the WRVS as a paid contract.  They deal with the entire administrative side including the CRB checking process however the volunteers themselves still describe themselves as being library volunteers.

Summer Reading challenge

This tends to attract young volunteers aged 16-25.  They have used volunteers from a scheme called Reading Partners who usually work in schools to help with reading but in the holidays they are available to work in libraries.  There was some initial resistance from staff however they are now generally positive with a feeling that the volunteers offer a better service than the limited number of reading and learning librarians are able to provide.

Friends of Libraries Groups

Tracy pointed out that it is easy to overlook these groups as being volunteers but their activities extend what the libraries can offer.  They support with time and also cash.  This money helps provide furniture and equipment.  Initially they wanted to provide books and stock, but the librarians felt that was part of core responsibility so directed money towards extras like display units.
The Friends also offer support at local library activities and events such as running the refreshments or helping with IT courses.  They also provide social contact which can be important role for public libraries by running coffee mornings, bring a book and have a chat events.  Dorset has 13 friends groups.  A campaigning role is also beginning to emerge for these groups.

Community supported opening hours.

In 2006 Dorset had a a funding shortfall.  Initially the Council decided to close 13 out of 34 libraries.  Resistance and campaigning followed and the proposal dropped however instead they needed to reduce hours in all 34 libraries.  The final decision was made to reduce the hours.  Doing this first became key in some of the legal areas which followed…

20 of the affected communities were invited to support local library service delivery by three possible options:
–Fund additional opening hours
–Take responsibility for library building
–Extend library opening hours using volunteers

6 local parishes decided to buy extra opening hours through their council tax.

2 communities responded to the option of providing volunteer staffed opening hours.  These are very small libraries which currently have 6 hours a week with one member of staff in small rural villages in affluent communities.  Dorset have found that this characteristic is important, it’s considerably more challenging to recruit from larger towns and less affluent areas.  These communities also already had established Friends groups which provided the initial volunteers.

The volunteers are extending staffed hours, but the council is still responsible for the library service.  The volunteers are providing the council’s library service for an extra 6 hours over a number of days.

Benefits of Community Staffed Libraries:

•Longer opening hours for local community
•Savings achieved
•Community engagement in local delivery
•Local advocates for library service – an unexpected bonus.
•Civic pride and ownership


But that enthusiasm needs to be channelled and library staff have to know what’s going on.  One example of volunteers’ enthusiasm running out of control would be when Dorset volunteers recently painted the library building.  Wonderful, except it was a rented building and the library did not have responsibility for it’s upkeep!


Volunteer recruitment and turnover – Worried initially whether they would be able to do it? However these concerns have been unrealised – they have only lost 1 volunteer after 18 months and that was because they were leaving the area.  They have found a high level of commitment.  These volunteers do tend to be retired professionals, especially from the people and caring professions.

Responsibilities (CRB, insurance and roles) – Be clear about roles and responsibilities.  What they will need to do to become a volunteer.  There was an initial resistance to CRB checking.  Totally unnecessary they felt so they had to set context and give an explanation.  They also needed public liability insurance.  Generally they found volunteers were most worried about the security of the building.  They didn’t want the responsibility of unlocking the building and unsetting the alarm.  Getting into the building was actually the biggest obstacle.

TUPE regulations  – This was a big risk.  Dorset had to get the county solicitor and head of HR for advice followed by 2 sets of barrister advice on it.  This relates back to the key decision that council made to reduce opening hours before there was a suggestion to involve volunteers.  Anyone involving volunteers in staffing hours needs to talk to legal professionals.

Trade Unions relations and staff views  – it is important to keep them informed and engaged.  People ask what the views of local staff are and there is lots of resistance initially.

Volunteer policy and supporting documentation – Crucial to have the written documents.  They used the County Council Vol policy as a framework.  This is very clear on how you will use volunteers and staff.

Training  – this is an important part of what you deliver to the volunteers.  This includes not just training on operational processes, but also diversity and H&S issues.

Access to LMS – This could be a big issue.  However with RFID (which Dorset has in all 34 libraries) and the volunteers do not have or need access to the LMS.  The training which would be required is too comprehensive for them to manage and there are too many data protection issues.  Anything that requires LMS access they have to pass on to paid staff on their next shift.  It works well because these are such small libraries. 

Role of Volunteers

•To help library users access and use:
–Books and other stock
–Other library services
•To help customers with using the self service equipment
•To undertake clerical duties associated with providing a library service eg shelving
•Referring library users to the Library Service as appropriate
•Liaise with local volunteer co-ordinator and library service staff as appropriate
Dorset has found it is essential to have a volunteer co-ordinator who can be available as one point of contact and Responsible for co-ordination of volunteers (e.g. rotas, holiday and sickness cover).  They also provide team supervision and support for training which stops the local staff being overburdened by queries.  This (volunteer) role has initially been taken on by the Chairman of the board of Friends.

 Next Steps?

Proposals include reduce opening hours again and use volunteers to make up hours.  Then brings into questions for TUPE where you are substituting a paid member of staff by a volunteer before making the decision to reduce hours.

The other option is for 10 libraries to become community managed where they take full responsibility.  The Library service will provide a support package including books, IT, and limited staffing support.  The choice is do we want to close 10 libraries or have a 25% reduction of professional staffing and a 55% reduction in book fund?


I found this extremely interesting as an introduction to community staffed libraries, especially the fact that this is working well, but only in very specific areas with a specific demographic.  I found it amazing that they had such low turnover of volunteers, however I do find older people are more stable volunteers myself, turnover tends to be amongst younger, job seeking people.  I was also surprised that they had found someone to take on the huge role of volunteer co-ordinating unpaid and someone who could do this reliably and well.  I do however think it is unlikely that they will find ten more individuals who are willing and able to take on this role and there may be difficulties in this area.  I thought the number of volunteer hours was also actually quite low, 8500 sounds a lot but it is spread across 34 libraries and in comparison we managed 7500 in just one library last year.

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Umbrella 2011

Well, that was a whirlwind experience!  Umbrella 2011 seems to have approached, happened and finished in a matter of moments.  I have to say I had a great time although I’m still trying to digest all the new ideas.

Before Umbrella, I looked at the sessions and I expected to come away with new ideas about metadata and volunteers in libraries.  Whilst I certainly enjoyed those sessions, I also came away with many other things to follow up.  Both the metadata and the volunteer sessions (Sessions B3 and E4) did give me useful solid information, but also made me feel part of a community of librarians and professionals who were all dealing with the same issues and problems.  The groan of experience when someone asked a question about how you fire a volunteer showed that…

Completely unexpected things to investigate included Koha/Open Source Library Management Systems and QR codes for displays as well as Google+.

The volunteering session also reminded me that a huge part of contribution volunteers can play is outside the time they actually spend at your library.  Their advocacy of your service to all the other people they meet is a massive support, just as much as a couple of hours spent cataloguing some reports.

Umbrella has also pushed me firmly onto Twitter with my first posts and a whole list of people to follow from the conference.  It also gave me a nudge to catch up with CPD23 too, even if I am 3 “things” behind!

I think I would have got more out of Umbrella if I could have followed the Tweets on a smartphone and I definitely have iPad envy after seeing the gadgets displayed by other delegates!  I would have appreciated Wifi and a plug socket as well to help me keep up on the old tech of a laptop…


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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.


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