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Volunteers at the Library: Some Thoughts

On August 30th 2017 as part of the Great Public Library Tour 2017 I visited Bucherhallen, (Central Public Library) in Hamburg. Housed in a beautiful old Post Office built in the early 1900’s the Central Library is situated opposite the main Hamburg City train station. The Library staff very generously gave presentations on their different programs and their successful Volunteer program got me thinking about volunteers and libraries.

Volunteers in libraries have long been essential for the delivery of a wide range of community and outreach services that are offered but are fraught with tension regarding the work they undertake and the work that professional library staff undertake. We have seen a significant devaluing of the library professional skillset in the UK as many public libraries have been handed to community volunteers to operate, with local UK Councils thinking this is a perfectly acceptable practice as austerity measures start to demand difficult budget choices. Communities respond to threatened library closures with these measures as they value the physical library remaining open within their communities even with the loss of professional library staff and this is true in many countries not just the UK.

In Hamburg, the Library is very clear about what their volunteer program is and what it is not. The City considers it important for their citizens to volunteer and participate in community life and to facilitate cultural interchange. So the City Council is also clear as to what a volunteer program is and what it is not.

The Library Volunteer Program is to aid the library to deliver additional library outreach services and does not cover any core library business tasks. Through their embedded procedures there is a clear separation between professional and voluntary work. There is also a very clear understanding in this Library service that managing volunteers costs money — in professional library staff time to manage the volunteer program and also to support volunteers in their roles.

More importantly, in this library service, this separation does not devalue the volunteers and the role they undertake. There is real recognition of the benefits to the library service from the library staff and on the importance of volunteers. They recognize that volunteers bring new customer groups to the library, that they are active library ambassadors for the library in the community and can mean new services, usually outreach services, can be delivered.

The number of volunteers at the Hamburg Central Library is 517 which is quite impressive for a library of this size. My own Library Service manages over 200 volunteers against specific volunteer projects which must be approved prior to recruiting the volunteers to deliver the program.

The major volunteer project for the Hamburg Central Library is their door-to-door media delivery service. I love the name “ Media Messengers” a much more positive description of the usual “Housebound Services” in Australia. The Media Messengers visit once a month and are expected to make it a visit rather than drop off the books as a transaction. It is described as a 1:1 relationship with the client with the volunteers doing all the selection, checking out and the delivery of the items. There is a specific Media Messenger collection of 6000 items primarily audiobooks for this purpose.

Fast Facts of the ‘Library on Two Legs’: Launched 2007; 157 Volunteers; 470 clients with 60% in their own home and 40% in care homes; Average age is 83 years; Service is free with a reduced annual Library Card fee of 15 Euros; Funding is 30% from Government and 70% from ‘flea market’ sales (old and donated books are sold continually with the flea market housed in the lower floor of the Central Library).

The second major volunteer project is ‘Dialog in Deutsch’. This project is focusing on refugees and helping them understand and learn the German language. The volunteers provide conversation classes, in teams of 2 or 3, weekly in every Branch Library (32) and the Central Library.

Fast Facts of Dialog in Deutsch: Launched in 2015 with 250 volunteers and by 2016 there were 108 open access groups in 33 branches with 4,300 attendees. The service is free and is completely funded by the Government.

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Volunteer Programs the lesson: there are 4 important issues to remember when implementing a volunteer program.

Clarify Volunteer Projects: Ensure there is organisation understanding of what is a volunteer project and what is core library work and do not confuse the two. Be clear at the outset what are the tasks and decisions that remain with the volunteers and what remain with library staff. Be clear who within the staff who is managing the project and also who approves the project to start.

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Recruitment: Invest in recruitment. Not everyone who offers to volunteer has the right skill set, understanding or value base for every volunteer program. Yes, we can be selective. Use a clear role description and a contract so there is an opportunity built in to review — for both the volunteer and the library.

Training: yes all volunteers need to have access to training in what they are expected to do. In Hamburg this training includes: How to manage groups; Handling clients of old age and illness; and How to read to adults.

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Acknowledgement: Recognition of the service, time and expertise that volunteers provide to the Library and the community is essential to maintain motivation and attention of the volunteers. In Hamburg Central Library the volunteers are treated as equivalent to staff. They are invited to staff events and celebrations to ensure they feel included and part of the library team. There is a professional Volunteer Manager on staff that ensures this happens. There are also benefits negotiated for the Volunteer by the library service, in this case a free Library card (worth 45 Euros per year) and invitations to library events. Regular meetings are held with the volunteers to see how they are managing and that they are still enjoying the experience. After all, your volunteers become ardent library ambassadors in the community and it is important to listen and learn from them.

Volunteers in libraries are important to deliver more to our communities. Ensuring there is clear separation of professional and voluntary work is maintained leads to a successful volunteer program — for both the volunteer and the library service. And remember, a volunteer program requires investment — both in time and money.


Written by

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics

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