LSC Journal Club Winter 2020: Volunteers in Libraries

Why hello, friends. It’s been awhile! I’m interrupting my blog hiatus to bring you a recap of the Winter 2020 Vancouver meet-up of the Library Services for Children Journal Club.

The LSC Journal Club is a project I started with my friend Christie that brings library staff together to read and discuss relevant research to the field of youth services. It’s award winning

This quarter we took on the topic of volunteers in libraries. As I searched for current research on this topic, specifically about public libraries, I found most of it centered on how to manage volunteers – the challenges, the rewards, the best practices. I couldn’t find anything recent that critically examined if and why we use volunteers in public libraries. Perhaps those articles are locked behind paywalls. Perhaps it’s a topic researchers consider mainstream enough not to interrogate further. The lack of research on the topic is telling in and of itself.

Christie and I wanted to discuss volunteerism in libraries for two reasons. Firstly, as I’ve written about before, many public libraries use volunteers to perform outreach services, especially with regards to children. Secondly, Baby Boomers are entering retirement, and many of them will be looking for ways to spend their free time to combat isolation and loneliness as they age. How are libraries addressing these two issues? What is the role of the library in supporting volunteerism and creating community connections? These are the questions on our minds.

Because I couldn’t find any good current research on the topic, I had to go back to 1996. The main article framing our discussion is Volunteers in unionized Canadian public libraries: A Finely Tuned Partnership.  I acknowledge that it is very specific to British Columbia and dated in its statistics. It does, however, provide a historical context for the use of volunteers in my LSC chapter’s province. To provide a children’s lens we paired it with the newly released ALSC report on community outreach called Engage, Cultivate, Provide, Assess: An Outreach Model for Serving All Children and Families White Paper.


As with most of our meetings, our discussion zigged and zagged back and forth between many topics. Here is a recap of the main ones.

Impact of Unionization

One of the main take-aways from the article is the clear impact of unionization on volunteerism in B.C. public libraries. When libraries in Canada first formed many of them were book lending services offered by charitable groups. In B.C. in particular the geography of the province “made the use of volunteers very necessary for early public library growth”( 145). By the 1930s two of B.C.’s early regional library systems were coordinated by paid professional librarians, but volunteers still operated the sites scattered across the province. It wasn’t until the 1970s that public library workers began to unionize in earnest, a trend which continues today. The author notes that this growing trend (even in the 1990s) led to complex relationships between volunteers and paid library staff.

Our group, all of whom work in a large unionized public library, discussed how we felt about volunteers in terms of working in a union. Our strong union has fought for the right to have all library work duties paid. This includes things like shelving, circulation tasks, programming, and outreach. We direct people who want to volunteer to our Friends of the Library organization which runs the library book sale and bookstore. I know my view of volunteers in libraries is shaped by my work in a well-funded unionized system. I think paying people to do library work is a form of advocacy itself- these jobs are worthy of money and workers need to get things like benefits, sick leave, and vacation time to live happy and full lives.

We also discussed the difference between a volunteer and a community partner. If there are events or programs or outreach services the library wants to offer but can’t because their staff doesn’t have the skills required, then partnering with a community group is a way to bridge that gap. We viewed a community group different from volunteers. Community partners work in tandem with paid staff and help provide a service or connection that the library does not specialize in. Drag Queen storytimes come to mind. For our group it was important to make that distinction as we are not advocates of having volunteers do storytime on a regular basis or as part of a core service. Having library staff work in coordination with a community partner allows us to bring our expertise about our collections and services, while also shines the light on community resources for our patrons.

We also touched on the topic of who volunteerism works for. Who has free time and is able to work without pay and benefits? Who does volunteering not work for? Does using volunteers create a barrier to diversifying the library field? Or does offering volunteer opportunities give options to a wider range of people? It’s hard to answer these questions without any research-based evidence, only anecdotes. Big city libraries with healthy budgets that use volunteers could be perceived as privileging the middle class especially.

Rural vs. Urban

Even though Curry’s article is dated, it shows a clear split between the use of volunteers between urban and rural libraries. I wish we could see updated numbers for the survey she presented (research project, anyone?) Even still, it’s clear that rural libraries rely heavily on volunteers for daily operational tasks because there is no money for staffing. The question then becomes – is it better to have a volunteer-led library or no library at all? Even I would rather have the former. What our group discussed is how the money is split from the province to local libraries. How can libraries across B.C. support each other if some places aren’t funded as well? How can we advocate at a provincial level for adequate staffing for all communities in B.C., especially our rural neighbours who often have high populations of vulnerable families?

When budget cuts happen, employers look for ways to reduce staff and still provide the same level of service. They don’t want the public to feel the effects of budget cuts. Often in these times, as has been seen all across the U.K., volunteers are brought in to do the work of formerly paid library staff. The quality of service decreases. And safeguards we have in place to take care of workers also disappear.

There are some libraries, especially rural libraries, that continue to use the model from the 1930s whereby a library is run by volunteers until they can demonstrate enough demand to warrant hiring a library staff member. I understand why these types of libraries would balk at the suggestion to have no volunteers – it’s literally how they survive. What I think is risky though is to suggest this is as a model for libraries everywhere. Rather, it should be utilized as a last resort in place where there isn’t existing funding to pay for staff. In Curry’s article, she cites the CUPE union’s criteria which state, “if volunteer activity illustrates an ongoing need, then the work should be paid. Once the pioneering work is over, the jobs should be permanent.” Unfortunately, so many rural libraries are stuck in the “pioneering” phase of developing proper staffing levels due to under-funding and geography challenges.

The Role of the Library

Within our context of an urban public library we then turned the conversation to thinking about what role the library could play in volunteerism. Often when people come into the library asking to volunteer they don’t want to run the booksale. They want to help people on the computer! They want to run a program! They want to do storytime! How can we take that energy and enthusiasm and goodwill and utilize it?

We thought libraries are exceptionally placed to be connectors for people looking to volunteer. We can do the research to find places in the community looking for volunteers. We can ask reference questions to help figure out what a good fit for each person might be. The library already has connections to many other organizations – how can we start having conversations with these groups about coordinating volunteer experiences?

We also considered the unique space of the library as a place for volunteers to gather, share information, or run their own program. Maybe that retiree who loves to knit could start a knitting circle that is allowed meet monthly in the library. Maybe that activist who is concerned about trash in the park could use the library to organize trash pick-up days. Our space can be used to help volunteers organize and do the work of volunteering that can be done outside organizations.

Lastly, we discussed the role of the library in helping teens find volunteer opportunities. At our library we do give teens community service hours for participating in programs like Reading Buddies or the Teen Advisory Group. So perhaps they are a bit of an exception to the rule? How does your library balance the desire to give teens library experience while also protecting the paid work we do? Getting teens involved in our programs is a great way to get them involved in libraries in general, and hopefully a way to rope in a diverse crowd of future library staff.

Looking Into the Future

At the end of our meeting we briefly touched on future trends. We didn’t have any concrete answers, but I find it interesting to think about big societal changes that will change the way libraries provide service. For example:

  • How will libraries handle a large segment of the population that is moving into retirement and faces a growing loneliness epidemic? How will our programming and collection shift to meet their unique needs? Is volunteerism part of the answer?
  • How will libraries handle an increasingly automated world? What if library tasks such as shelving, specific information questions, or way-finding becomes completed automated? Where will the staff who currently perform these tasks be rerouted and how might that impact how volunteers are used?
  • What if guaranteed basic income is implemented on a large scale? As people move out of certain jobs and are given enough money to live on, how can the library step in to help people volunteer in their community? Will our programs and services need to change to continue to provide learning opportunities for all?

What do you think about using volunteers in libraries? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

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