MHLS Home Trustee Resources: Across the Board
The Role of Today's Library Volunteer
Summer 2005

Across the Board | Summer 2005 | Topic: The Role of Today's Library Volunteer
The Mid-Hudson Library System's Quarterly Newsletter for Public Library Trustees

The Changing Nature of Volunteers @ your library. "In the broadest sense, library volunteerism is one way of fostering the democratic ideal of community participation… In
the narrowest sense, volunteerism is one part of the total dialog between the community
and the library." - Preston Driggers & Eileen Dumas, "Managing Library Volunteers: A Practical Toolkit" (2002)

Volunteers and public libraries have gone hand-in-hand for decades; however, the roles that volunteers play in the library and the type of people looking to volunteer at your library has changed and is still changing. This issue of Across the Board is dedicated to helping public library trustees understand and prepare for these changes and make the most of the dedicated people in your community who would like to help your library.

Many U.S. public libraries would not exist today if it were not for volunteers banding together to form local reading rooms and lending libraries. Over the years volunteers have done everything from running the library to working the circulation desk and even shoveling the sidewalk in winter. Times have certainly changed area libraries over the years, greatly so in the past decade. For example, technology has changed the complexity of workflow in the library and many volunteers who used to help check out books have moved from behind the circulation desk to other roles within the organization. Another shift has been the increased number of paid staff people now working in our libraries, many of whom started out as volunteers!

External Changes
New Volunteers - There are external changes coming that will have an impact on the type of volunteers knocking on your door. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported on the inability of many nonprofit organizations to take advantage of the imminent surge of retiring Baby Boomers as a volunteer source. Constance Todd, executive director of the National Institute of Senior Centers, says that the baby boomer volunteers within her organization want their volunteer work "to have value and an impact" and that they like social interaction. How can you meet their needs in your library?

Personnnel Costs - Personnel costs account for a significant portion of your library's budget. In MHLS libraries personnel disbursements account for an average of 64 percent of total budgets.

Here are some other suggested volunteer activities:

Legal and Risk Management Issues
Some library volunteer programs simply consist of praying for great volunteers to walk through the door. Libraries must plan for success by:

Either approach requires that the board of trustees sanction the use of volunteers within the library and consider the legal and risk management issues associated with the use of volunteer labor.

How do you define a "volunteer"?
- Do you have age limitations?
Here's one definition of a volunteer:
"A volunteer shall be considered as any individual, 16 years or older, who assists with work done at the Louisville Public Library, without remuneration.
Exceptions to the age requirement may be made by the Library Director.
A student intern shall be considered as any middle school, high school or college student who performs volunteer work, without remuneration, as part of an authorized school program to earn academic credit. Individual Boy Scouts working on advanced awards are also classified as student interns." (source: Louisville Public Library, Colorado)

Disabled Volunteers
- If disabled volunteers come into the library as customers, they fall under the "public accommodation" section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, if they work in your library as volunteers they are exempt from the act. Your willingness to make "reasonable accommodations" in the workplace demonstrates a good faith effort on the part of the library to use the talents of disabled individuals. (For more information about the ADA, visit the MHLS web site at

Youth Volunteers
- Involving teens brings them into the library when they might not otherwise participate in your organization. However, be aware of the management and legal issues surrounding youth volunteers:

Court-Ordered Workers - You'll need a policy stating your requirements for court-ordered workers.

Volunteers & Driving - Are you thinking about soliciting volunteers to do home delivery of library items using a personal vehicle? Be sure that you have a policy requiring your director to review both a current motor vehicle record and proof of auto insurance; make copies to keep on file at the library.

Training - Along with training in the specific tasks a volunteer will be asked to do, volunteers should receive basic safety training.

Confidentiality - One of the most important training components for volunteers is to convey a clear message regarding patron confidentiality and privacy. Volunteers must understand the importance of safeguarding a patron's personal information and reading habits-and that it is not only inappropriate to share this information with family members or friends, but it is against New York State Law. (For more information about the Confidentiality of Patron Records, visit the MHLS web site at

Accountability - Have volunteers "sign-off" on your policies to prove that they've received and read them. This can help protect the library should a volunteer be accused of any wrong-doing that is covered under library policies.

Insurance - One of the biggest concerns of many trustees when it comes to volunteers is insurance. The Federal Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 grants immunity from personal liability to volunteers who are acting in good faith within the scope of their duties (a good reason to have job descriptions for volunteers!). You can purchase additional insurance, but depending on the extent of your volunteer program this may or may not be worthwhile. Talk to your insurance broker before buying into this.

Samples of volunteer policies and the others mentioned above are available on the MHLS web site under Administration & Management then Policies or access them directly at

Traditionally, your library director will supervise the recruitment, supervision, training, evaluation, and recognition of volunteers or appoint a paid staff member to oversee the volunteer program. Good practices such as training and evaluation can help your library make the most of the time and energy of your volunteers just as it can for paid staff.

As a trustee it is important to insist upon recognition of the volunteer work done in your library. These are the people, like you, who give their time freely because they believe in what your library does. There will be no greater advocate for your library than a trained and happy volunteer. Word of mouth is probably the best publicity mechanism for libraries, and volunteers play a large role in getting the word out to the community about the great stuff going on at your library.Don't miss this opportunity to make the most of your budget and your library's good name.

Recruitment Tips


Home | Public Library Catalog | Calendar | Contacts | Services | Bulletins | Member Libraries | MHLS Board of Trustees | Web Site Index

Administration & Management | Resource Sharing & Millennium | Reference & Collection Development | Library Programming | Professional Development | Marketing, Advocacy & Funding | Youth Services | Trustee Resources