The Evolving Volunteer

I’ve lately read about some rather progressive ways students and adult volunteers are being used in libraries. In some libraries, crowdsourcing has been applied to tasks traditionally reserved for professional staff. Volunteer workers are doing more than checking in materials, prepping for craft and story hours, and shelving books. In some places, they’re aiding data discoverability, making connections, and creating content.

Volunteers, not paid staff, are digitizing newspapers, photos, and out-of-print books. They create searchable databases of community births and obituaries. Volunteers are tagging library photos on Flickr and engaging with the community on social media sites. They’re on Twitter, monitoring the library’s brand and tracking local news, stories, and events. They scan the catalog for errors. They perform readers’ advisory and write book reviews for the library’s website.

Libraries have long leaned on volunteers for purposes of maintenance and probably always will. Yet as libraries have changed, so have crowdsourcing and the role of the volunteer. The evolution of the relationship between library and user has intriguing implications regarding not only ownership and civic engagement, but information creation, quality, and searchability.

I’d be interested to learn how other libraries are mining the skills of their students and patrons. Please share experiences or other thoughts on the subject.


About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

9 Responses to The Evolving Volunteer

  1. Dan says:

    This post raises this question: Does the evolution of library volunteers into workers who create content make the role of the public librarian obsolete? What if a public library can get rid of their librarians and just rely on volunteers? This post also raises this question: Do these volunteers all have backgrounds in library and information science? A majority of librarians have master’s degrees while volunteers may or may not have any library educational experience. These volunteers may be responsible for some duties but they have no experience performing these duties. I support the work public library volunteers but when they begin taken on roles only librarians should have it creates a slippery slope.

    • Thanks for checking in, Dan. Please don’t have any fear of volunteers taking over the library. If public librarianship is ever forced into obsolescence, I’m certain that volunteers will have nothing to do with it. Some volunteers do have library degrees, including yours truly, but most do not. Many are teens and retirees. I suspect that most volunteers put to work in these sensitive areas are trained by librarians or professional staff so to ensure integrity of data and quality of production. Libraries have been outsourcing traditional duties for decades. Any duty that can be entrusted to the skills of a patron volunteer saves the library money and time and strengthens the bond between the library and its usership.

  2. I am going to be volunteering at the state library, right by my school. The volunteers there go do many of the things that you described. However, the volunteers do not in anyway take the place of the librarians. The staff there is 80% MLIS librarians, 20% support staff. They just have so many projects going on at once that they need additional help and rely on volunteers to get the projects moving.

    What’s helpful for a student like me, is that they are willing to put me on projects that will help me develop skills that I am seeking. In return, they get help on projects that need to get done and volunteers that actually will show up on time.

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  4. Katie W. says:

    This is really encouraging to hear! In my own volunteer experience, I haven’t had the opportunity to do much besides the basic “Hi, how are ya?” duties of the Welcome Desk, so to hear that skilled volunteers are being welcomed into the library community was definitely a shot in the arm.

    And in response to the comments above, I doubt volunteers will ever replace trained staff, even in their more comprehensive roles. If anything, I think they could help give librarians and staff the time to focus on projects they’re passionate about, which would improve library services all around.

    • I like the practice of staffing volunteers to do readers’ advisory. Some volunteers have RA strengths in nonfiction whereas your staff may be largely read in fiction, or vise versa. And believe it or not, some librarians just don’t have time to read and may not be of great help to a patron seeking relative authors and titles, whether historical fiction, narrative nonfiction, or cutting edge new age philosophy. Sure, they can use any of the better RA websites to get books into the uncertain reader’s hands. But that kind of interaction, compared to an actual conversation with a well-read volunteer, is just full of holes. Say your library or branch is staffed three days a week by a non-reading librarian, a busy children’s librarian, and a few circulation clerks. These are opportunities to give community bookworms a special place in the library while making capable RA people available to curious patrons.

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