Volunteering in libraries has become a contentious issue in the profession, especially since many areas in England try to replace professionally staffed public libraries with co-called “community libraries” staffed by volunteers.
As per usual I approach this from a school library perspective, and a Scottish one at that. Bear in mind at least until recently (I don’t know what the current picture is) the vast majority of school libraries in Scotland were professionally staffed. I was just reading Lauren Smith’s blog about volunteering which makes some excellent points. My perspective on volunteers is very similar. As a person who took on volunteers I have a few things to add.
As a school librarian, pupil volunteers were an absolute godsend. I would highly recommend taking on pupil volunteers. Running lunchtime opening is just a million times calmer and fun with help. I had volunteers from S2 (2nd year of Secondary school) to S6, and they helped with item issues and returns, shelving, making book displays. They were my “go-to” instant focus group for ideas I had for the library. I found the School Library Association ‘Pupil Librarian Toolkit’ handy (it is on their website but accessible to members only – http://www.sla.org.uk/advice-and-support.php). But I do significantly diverge from the approach it recommends. Essentially, the SLA toolkit recommends advertising the role, looking for pupils with various skills and qualities, interviews etc.
My perspective is that having pupil volunteers is not principally for MY benefit, as a school librarian, it is for the PUPILS benefit. So, I actually look for who would benefit from the experience. Yes, they have to show an interest, but beyond that, what is the function of a school if not to furnish pupils with skills and experience? Being a pupil volunteer is a great way to gain confidence speaking to people, working in a team, patience, and of getting some practical experience in a real, working library at the same time.
Bearing this in mind, when I was a school librarian, I ran a training scheme for my library volunteers. This was outside of library opening time & meant everyone could get together as a team. Using the SLA pupil toolkit, I would draft a job description, and we would look at it together and modify it until me and the volunteers were happy with it. We would then do a little skills audit, so I had a good picture of which parts volunteers had confidence in and where training was needed. We might do some teambuilding games or some enquiry roleplaying. Sometimes I had things I needed to make them aware of, such as privacy issues with people’s book loans, so we even did a smidge of library ethics. It depended completely on what the volunteers needed to learn. Other weeks, we would do activities like identifying the transferable skills they were gaining from volunteering. I felt it was important for the volunteers to be aware of these skills and qualities, so that they could make the most of them when applying for jobs or college later. We also participated in the Millennium Volunteer Award scheme, so their hours could count towards a certificate. The SLA also sent me some beautifully smart thank you letters for the pupils to keep. In return, I also felt very protective of my volunteers, for example, I expected pupils to be polite and respectful to my volunteers, and anything less was not acceptable! On the rare occasion where a volunteer gets hassled, be there to back them up, make sure they know you are absolutely there for them. After all, they are giving up their lunchtime to help. They deserve to feel safe and valued, just as they deserve training for the skills they need for the job.
I think pupil volunteers in school libraries are important. I think school libraries are in a great position to give some youngsters work experience and training. Being a library volunteer can give a young person a chance to shine, a chance to experience something different, a different way to be learning, to be experiencing success, to contribute to the school community. I mention this because I wonder if my experience could inform the debate on volunteers in other library sectors. I have done volunteering in the past, as a student I did various things, and that experience was very valuable to me. Right now, I would not do volunteer library work, I think it would be counter-productive and only encourage a ‘race to the bottom’ for salaries and enough library posts have been lost already. Rather than seeing volunteers as an opportunity to get a quasi-professional on the (very!) cheap, we should ask ourselves, how can we make volunteering of value to volunteers? Who would benefit from volunteering experience?