Use of volunteers in libraries has a long history in the United States. Budget constraints starting in the mid-1970s led to hiring freezes and sometimes even staff reductions. This made securing additional full-time equivalent (FTE) position for a library has become rare. This has led to the workloads of existing staff to increase. As a result some of the activities that are desirable for good service have to go undone or are only done to a limited degree. Examples of such activities are what is called shelf reading and collection inventory.
Another result is a complete dependence on volunteers to provide any level of service by some small libraries, especially school and small town libraries. Even if the library does not have a formal volunteer program, most have some volunteers working on their behalf with the exception perhaps of those libraries which are part of the corporate environment.
The value and importance of volunteerism has been highly publicized nationally in the recent past. There is little evidence that the publicity did much to increase the number of volunteers. Some of the press focused on building volunteerism into educational curricula. This is not a new idea. In the 1930s John Dewey pushed the concept. There are many programs of this type that have existed since before the recent publicity. In Minnesota there is an example of this with the joint project between St. Paul Public Library and the public school system there. They created a library youth volunteer corps. It is a mentoring program that involves teaching others how to use library technology such as online catalogs and CD-ROM products.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 which is commonly known as Welfare Reform, is another factor that may increase the use of “volunteers” in publicly funded libraries. Some community service is one component of the welfare-to-work concept. There is a high expectation that libraries will take their share of former welfare recipients who must perform as much as forty hours of community service hours per week, since libraries are public institutions.
In a situation in which the library takes on some of the participants of such a program there will be some challenges for the existing paid staff. It is expected that the “host site” will provide the participants with opportunities that will both help establish an appropriate work behavior pattern such as being on time, regular scheduled attendance, and develop work skills that will prepare them to be more competitive in the labor market. The first goal has similar expectations as the existing volunteer programs and there is often an area of flexibility here in existing programs. The second goal of developing marketable job skills may present at least two challenges. One being that many of the tasks that the libraries have set up for volunteers not already in a library volunteer program are not likely to develop marketable skills. They are skills that are only useful in the library. Second is the amount time required by the staff to train and supervise the volunteers. The level of motivation further complicates the issue.
Volunteers have become an important element in operating many types of libraries. This is likely to increase in number due to the Welfare Reform Act, and other programs who require volunteer hours.
Introduction to Library Public Services, Sixth Ed., By G. Edward Evans, Anthony J. Amodeo, and Thomas L. Carter.