Could your library use some assistance in staffing? Whether you work at a large city library or a small one- or two-staff-member rural library, volunteers can make a huge difference! But how do you recruit, manage, and engage volunteers? How do you make sure your volunteers keep coming back?
For our January webinar (watch the archive), we invited two guests to share their expertise and best practices from their libraries' volunteer programs:
- Squee Leigh is a library program associate at the Denver Public Library’s Community Technology Center. The center has an average of 50 volunteers who provide over 500 hours of assistance to library computer users each month.
- Randal Smathers is the assistant director of the much smaller Rutland Free Library (in Vermont). He supervises the library's community-driven one-on-one volunteer tech tutor program, which evolved out of a statewide program.
Managing Tech Volunteers at the Denver Public Library
The Community Technology Center (CTC), located in downtown Denver, serves a population that's diverse in terms of technical proficiency. The CTC offers public access computers (127 stations!) as well as technology training classes. The CTC started out as a fully volunteer-staffed operation, but now it has 10 staff members and somewhere between 50 to 70 volunteers depending on the time of year.
"People show up, we don't know their skill level, and we have to be able to teach them," Squee remarked. Much of her training for volunteers is centered on how to serve different people — and stay on your toes.
Potential Volunteers Are Everywhere
When it comes to recruitment, Squee looks for volunteers through local colleges and universities, at retirement homes, via the library's website, and through social media. Squee said she's had a lot of luck reaching out to retirement communities because she's found retired people have the free time and want to give back to their communities. Many of them also have tech skills — even if they don't consider themselves to be technical people! She asks potential volunteers questions like, "Do you know how to send email with an attachment?" or "Do you use social media?" If they answer yes, they likely have more technical skills than many of the people coming to the CTC.
Tailor Tasks to Volunteers' Skills and Personalities
Once Squee recruits her volunteers, she then matches their skills and personality to a task or position. She assigns extroverted and energetic volunteers to the service desk where they answer on-the-fly tech questions. She has more reserved types do one-on-one volunteering or assist in a classroom. She places the volunteers with advanced tech skills in the ideaLAB, a computer lab/makerspace for teens.
Assign a Volunteer Manager (and Have Backup!)
To manage all of your various volunteers and personality types, Squee recommends having a volunteer manager who can act as a single point of contact. You should also have a backup manager in case your main person is out on vacation or sick. That way, your volunteers are never left hanging. The Denver Public Library also uses a shared Google Calendar to manage volunteer shifts and scheduling.
Train Volunteers and Set Clear Expectations
All volunteers must attend an orientation, where the staff sets volunteer expectations, such as:
- What can they help patrons with?
- What can't they help patrons with? What shouldn't they do?
- When does staff need to step in?
Next the volunteers must do a series of shadowing sessions, where the staff can assess their skills for a particular task or job. Volunteers are also encouraged to attend technology classes and play with the different kinds of devices and software the library provides. Finally, volunteers can use the resources on the Community Technology Center's Training Wiki, which has a dedicated section for volunteers.
Keep Your Volunteers Happy!
Squee also shared some great advice regarding volunteer retention: keep them busy (and happy!), interact with them, and offer recommendations for jobs.
Volunteers in Small Libraries
You don't need to have a big library system like Denver's to start a volunteer program. Randal shared his experience managing a volunteer at his small library in Vermont. In a drastic contrast to Denver's CTC, the Rutland Free Library has 10 public access computers and one volunteer tech tutor named Scott.
Recently retired from a technical career, Scott is helpful, enjoys coaching, and has good people skills. The volunteer coordinator vetted Scott's skills and then brought him on for a trial period. Randal screened his work for a few weeks until he felt confident in Scott's ability to answer patron questions. The library staff also trained Scott by showing him the basics of the public access computers at the library.
The additional help has been a boon for this small library, particularly during busy times or with especially needy patrons. If the reference librarian is busy, the tutor can easily jump in and help out with basic computer questions.
For small or rural libraries looking to start a volunteer program, Randal said:
"You don't need a lot of resources to do this — you need a really good volunteer."