Libraries, the universe and everything

Volunteers – the el399 guide
December 19, 2014, 12:10
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: , ,

I recently added another strand of volunteering to my current batch of activities, and this prompted me to think again about the whole process of recruiting and managing volunteers.

I should perhaps say at this point that I am not in favour of gutting library services and replacing professional library staff with untrained persons, however well-meaning they may be. However, in the historical/cultural sector appropriately-skilled volunteers are enormously valuable in augmenting the work of paid staff, and I have experienced the benefits of this as both an employee and a volunteer.

Given that I hope to continue my career in historic collections, it seems reasonable to suppose that one day I may find myself recruiting and/or managing volunteers of my own. Over the past two years I’ve had a range of experiences as a volunteer myself, and have been quite surprised by the variety of behaviours I’ve encountered along the way. Consequently I thought it might be helpful to put together my own good-practice guide for volunteer recruitment and management, if only so I have a chance of remembering this in years to come.

First, three guiding principles:

  1. Volunteer management is really just common sense and good manners. You have stuff for people to do, people want to do that stuff – and (assuming your organization supports the concept) making this happen should not be terribly difficult.
  2. Never forget that your volunteers are giving up their time to help you for free, so the least you can do is ensure that they are getting something positive out of the experience too. Equally if it turns out they’re in the wrong position, and for some reason can’t (or won’t) cope with the work you want them to do (or are obviously bored by it), you need to address the situation promptly and politely.
  3. Good management is crucial. If whoever is supposed to be managing your volunteer(s) has poor or no management skills please do something about it. Managing a volunteer can be a great way to get some management experience, but it is not appropriate to make your volunteer(s) suffer at the hands of somebody who isn’t up to the task.

So, without further ado, here is the el399 guide to volunteer management:


  • Begin by working out exactly what you want your volunteer(s) to do, and put together a job description for them, including any required/desirable skills or experience and time commitments involved.
  • Try to make the recruitment process structured but not too involved, and I’d recommend speaking to applicants early on, as well as asking them to send a CV or complete a form.


  • If they need an ID card, security pass or similar do try to get it sorted out on their first day, or, failing that, within a week or two at most. Ideally don’t leave it up to them to remind you about it, or abandon them to being hassled by security every time they come in (or at least not more than once!).
  • Make sure they are clear about the bigger picture – it is helpful to know (in broad terms) what the rest of the department/organization is doing, as well as their own responsibilities.
  • Have something ready for them to do on their first day, and arrange to be available around the time of their scheduled arrival (failing that have a colleague assigned to welcome and get them started).


  • Just as with a new paid staff member, spend some time showing them how the systems work, ensuring they have a note of any necessary log-in details, any little tips & tricks that could help (keyboard shortcuts etc) – online guidance docs &/or a printed ‘cheat sheet’ might be useful (which you may already have, of course).
  • Try to be observant of their learning style as you go along – e.g. give them time to take notes if they need to, and consider whether to demo things yourself first or get them to do it themselves with your instruction (you can always ask them what they prefer).
  • Initially stay close by whilst they begin their tasks – not to smother or do it for them, but to be sure that they are getting on with things ok, especially while the work is unfamiliar.
  • Make a point of checking in with them from time to time, encourage them to show you what they’ve been working on, and give any suggestions or corrections in a supportive way.


  • When they arrive for their next shift, be aware that they might have forgotten a few things, so make it clear you’re available to help if they need you. Again, check in with them from time to time, and make sure they have enough to do (or know who to ask for more work) if you need to disappear for lengthy meetings or other appointments.
  • Consider asking them to join you (& others) for coffee/lunch so you can start getting to know them – making connections and being friendly is especially important if they don’t work for you every day (obviously this isn’t always going to be possible, and don’t force the issue, but particularly at the beginning it’s good to be welcoming).
  • Be proactive in notifying them about closures, whether regular or unusual, and what the procedure is for them letting you know when they need time off.
  • Review progress – once they’re up and running, consider having a slightly more formal review than just a regular check-in (this may or may not be necessary depending on what they’re working on, but at the very least do remember to ask them how it’s going periodically once they’re functioning independently).


  • Praise. This is SO important. Obviously it also has to be genuine, but do remember to let them know they’re appreciated, and make a point of letting them know if someone has complimented you on their work, when they’ve learned a new skill quickly, or if they’ve dealt well with a situation.
  • Volunteer appreciation parties are niceĀ but I feel that encouraging them to feel part of the team through smaller personal moments is actually more valuable – e.g. getting them a birthday card, inviting them to departmental social occasions every now & then.
  • Perks/benefits – if there are any benefits available to your volunteers (discounts in the shop/cafe, free entry to exhibitions/concerts/lectures, whatever) make sure they are made aware of them at the outset, but also remind them again after a few weeks in case they’ve forgotten.

So there you have it – adjust for personal and organisational circumstances as required.

It’s quite possible that I’m being way too fussy about this, but I have to say that my best experiences as a volunteer have encompassed most of the above (whilst the worst could be set out as the inverse). I would be really interested to hear comments on this, so please do let me know if you have anything to add, if you disagree with any (or all) of this, or if there are any points here which speak to your own experiences.

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