Sunday, September 12, 2010

Volunteers in the Library

Recently I saw the following ad for a librarian. I edited it to remove indications of the organization’s name or location. This description includes many of the skills that it takes librarians many years of training and experience to do well such as management, collection development, ordering new materials, building a collection, assisting readers in the finding of materials, keeping library users informed of new acquisitions, cataloging materials, and providing reference services.
1> Run library of 4000+ monographs, periodicals, and DVD's.
2> Create catalog records in digital catalog for new additions to collection (using Resource Mate)
3> Order books, DVD's, and periodicals that staff requests
4> Assist staff & visitors with finding books and materials
5> Check in and display incoming periodicals
6> Send out library updates to staff on new acquisitions and interesting articles
7> Assess books donations for retention value
8> Classify books in both Dewey and Elazar systems; create books labels, and shelve
9> Provide reference services as needed


MLS graduate with good organizational abilities, and interpersonal skills.

This is not a small school or non-profit organization. It is a large professionally run organization that distributed more than $130 million in grants to more than 100 agencies. One $54,850 grant went to an Israeli library for a program in language and literacy development. You should have guessed by now why I am annoyed with this agency. For all of the required professional librarian skills, this is a volunteer position. All the above activities are supposed to be accomplished in 4-8 hours per week by a volunteer not paid professional.

I’m not against volunteers. I volunteer my time for my synagogue. I contribute my expertise and time to make the community a better place. Officers volunteer and provide management and leadership many hours each week. The synagogue could not run without volunteers. I volunteer for my professional librarian groups. I use my writing, teaching, and other skills to further my profession. I am not paid for writing articles. There is a line between what I would and would not do as a volunteer. I would run volunteer a program; I would not catalog materials or build a collection without compensation. I would answer a question; I would not sit for four hours on a regular basis and help all comers with skilled reference services without compensation.

Would this organization ask a lawyer, dentist, doctor or plumber to come to the office every week without compensation?

Volunteers can be used effectively in a library program. They work with and under the direct supervision of a librarian. Susan C. Eubank, the librarian at the Denver (Colorado) Botanic Gardens, writes in the article, “Volunteers in the Helen Fowler Library at Denver Botanic Gardens” (Colorado Libraries 25:3 Fall 1999) “…the Library would not exist without volunteers. Denver Botanic Gardens is a non-profit organization that has used volunteers from the beginning and the Library continues that tradition.” Volunteers in the Library at Denver Botanic Gardens run the book sale and some of the mundane and less time dependent tasks, such as shelving, processing new books and data entry. These tasks can be done on their schedule without any pressure to do it now. Many of the volunteers are there for the long term and have been there longer than the librarian. They are strong advocates for the library within the Botanic Gardens and good for public relations within the community. The organization and the individuals benefit from the arrangement.

Kathy Ishizuka has a different point of view (“School libraries struggle with layoffs” in School Library Journal 49:2 18-19 F 2003). This article reports on the situation of schools with budgetary problems using volunteers in elementary and high school libraries. In schools without librarians there is no collaboration on assignments with faculty, no collection development, and no instruction in research skills.

Alan Jacobson, volunteer coordinator at the Oak Park (Illinois) Public Library wrote in American Libraries (“Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can Do More, Volunteer. American Libraries v. 41:5, May 2010 p. 39-41) about how a library can use volunteers to help serve the public. He claims volunteers augment staff. In a letter, (“Reader Forum, “ American Libraries v. 41:9, September 2010 p. 7) Brenda Knutson strongly disagrees with Jacobson. She claims that articles such as Jacobson’s encouraged the Los Angeles City Council to lay off staff.

What conditions should one volunteer professional expertise? When you are member of a community or professional organization, you are helping the organization and yourself. When you help your children’s or grandchildren’s school you are contributing to the school and the education of your family. There may be good reasons to volunteer for the organization mentioned in the above ad. However, the organization should requite from within and not listserv for professional librarians. As professionals we have to promote ourselves and show information services are valuable to the organization and the community.


Tom Kaun said...

Could not agree more on the issue of using a professional search service to locate a volunteer professional. One might even tolerate a professional librarian volunteering under the direction of a paid professional but to expect someone to run a library on a totally voluntary basis is just wrong.
I am the head of a public high school library and like others you quoted, value my community volunteers. But I don't think our district could get away with using volunteers to run the library in the absence of a professional. That's not to say that it doesn't happen in our state (Calif.), it's just that some districts are not held accountable to our state ed code when it comes to professional staffing and other are. ;<)

Daniel Stuhlman said...

I have never worked in public library. If I were hired as a professor in library school it would add to my expertise to know more about public libraries. Under these circumstances, I would be willing to volunteer for a limited number of hours in a public library.

I would not want the public library to advertise for a professional librarian to run a branch.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

From Elizabeth Varley via e-mail --

Yes...however, when you are the volunteer head of a very small community library that exists on donations from the take what you can get in the way of help. Does that make the Arden Library a waste of time and space?

My comment --

It is an individual choice to volunteer. The library should ask for help with it its community, not send an ad to a professional listserv or publication.

Terri said...

At least it requires someone with a MLS. They do realize that running a library requires specialized training. In many areas public school libraries are being run by assistants with no MLS degree.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

I received an e-mail from the poster of the ad. They understand that professionals need to be compensated. They are hoping they can get a library school student or a retired librarian to do the job.

Hmm-- A student may work there for a year or so. What happens when the person leaves? Will there be money to hire a professional? It takes several years to understand the yearly cycles of an organization. It takes a while to know the people who use the library.

Stephanie L. Gross said...

Thank you all. As chair of the mentoring committee for AJL I could not agree more. I've made my peace with retired librarians volunteering their services (I prefer the term "pro bono" to underscore the professional requirements). However, more and more often the mentor committee is being asked to provide para-professional volunteers to replace professional expertise. Although I do not wish to see libraries close, I think that there must be a renewed understanding in exactly what we do (or should be doing). I'll continue to watch this column for further helpful insights on this very timely and pressing topic.

Stephanie L. Gross said...

Thank you all for your comments. As chair of the AJL Mentoring committee (comments here my own) I must say that more and more often we are being requested to supply free labor (and often unskilled) to replace positions formerly held by librarians. Yes, volunteering is a choice, and is often made by retired librarians. However, the job is NOT for hobbyists. In order for the public to be well-served, professionals must have a heavy hand in the organization and running of the facility. This is much like appropriate staffing for gyms. There is tremendous responsibility for doing things right and the training CAN happen over time without an MLS. I just read about such a case in the July-August issue of Information Outlook. The bottom line is that we must advocate for our profession in every way that we can, not just libraries. I know that many of us are not entirely comfortable with marketing ourselves, but there are ways of doing this in tactfully, meaningful ways. Social media is proving to be one of them.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

Thank you Stephanie. One of the purposes of this blog is to show the expertise of the library and librarian. Just last night some students came to the library for a research project. Their teacher had given them outdated and obsolete advice on searching for information.

Please share this column with anyone who can benefit. One of the reasons to write about marketing is to enable and encourage spreading of the good word about libraries and information services.