Nowadays many libraries and archives rely on teams of volunteers who work alongside the regular, employed staff.
Volunteers are not intended to replace paid staff – their work supports activities which may not otherwise take place, due to the restrictions of time or budget.
The role of a library volunteer
The work done by library volunteers varies from library to library. It depends partly on the services offered at a particular library and partly on the skills and experience of individual volunteers.
Activities which volunteers might undertake in a library include:
- organising or helping with regular or one-off events such as book groups, coffee mornings, story time for children, poetry readings, etc
- using their specific skills or experience such as helping users of library computers or running craft groups
- selecting books for housebound readers and delivering them
- cataloguing resources
- promoting the library service within the community
- undertaking surveys and consultations.
In recent years, some public library authorities have (controversially) started to look towards volunteers to help to maintain opening hours in a small library or even to take over the running of such a library completely, with or occasionally without the support of the service management.
Some people use volunteering as an initial step into library or archive work.
Archive volunteers may:
- research, collate and index resources
- develop web materials
- clean and pack archive materials
- help with specific one-off projects such as recording oral history
- assist with events and publicity.
Although volunteers give their time without pay, in most cases they receive out of pocket expenses such as travel costs.
Volunteers usually give whatever time they can spare. This may be on a regular basis (weekly or monthly, for example) or through a more ad hoc arrangement (for particular events, for example). Most organisations ask for an agreed commitment.
There are volunteers working in some public (local authority) libraries and archives, and some specialist libraries and archives also have teams of volunteers. They work under the direction of a named member of staff who also supports them in their volunteer work.
Becoming a volunteer
The main requirement is a willingness to give time on a regular basis. Applicants usually have to provide references and undergo a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check. There maybe a short interview.
Volunteers receive an initial induction and there may be ongoing training.
Some volunteer opportunities are specifically intended for those working towards a career in archives, library or information services and may ask for volunteers who are at least partly qualified. This will be made clear in the vacancy information.
Developing as a volunteer
People volunteer in libraries and archives for all sorts of different reasons – some are retired people looking for a worthwhile activity or who want to do something for their community. If they wish, volunteers may take on additional volunteer roles.
Some people use volunteering as an initial step into library or archive work. They may be looking for a paid vacancy as an archive assistant, library assistant or shelver or they may be working towards becoming a qualified librarian or archivist.
Volunteers may use a specific activity to move into another chosen career area, such as working with young people or IT, or for self-development projects such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.