You always seem to need one when there aren’t any around, and you always seem to have too many when there isn’t anything for them to do! What are they? Volunteers! This is all especially true of teen volunteers, who range from the bored-nothing-else-to-do variety to the I-need-sixty-hours-of-community-service-for-Honor-Society sect. So how do you make the most of them (and manage to keep your sanity in the process?)
Set some ground rules: Some libraries have volunteer programs with forms and checklists and signatures required. If your library doesn’t do this now might be a good time to look into at least creating a set of rules or expectations for your volunteers to follow. It can be something as simple as 1.) Show up on time, 2.) Call if you are not able to come in, 3.) Give us plenty of notice if you need extra hours. Having a set of ground rules for everyone to follow makes things easier to manage.
Cater to their skills: When first signing up volunteers, interview them. Find out their interests, their skills, and what they expect. Let them know what you expect from them. Once you are all on the same page, try to find things that they will find enjoyable to do (and yes, this isn’t always going to be possible) or things that will challenge them (this is key for those Honor Society teens.) A volunteer that wants to be there is going to be more fun and more helpful than one who doesn’t.
Scheduling: Create a schedule for your volunteers, and make them adhere to it like you would a staff member. One of the biggest problems I’ve had in the past with volunteers is when they just show up randomly. If you know when they are coming then you can have something ready for them to do. Volunteers that don’t come in when they are supposed to or who drop by unannounced don’t need to be volunteering!
Set limits: Setting limits is key to keeping your sanity intact! Keep volunteer shifts short; between two and three hours is plenty of time do get a project done. Don’t give volunteers too many shifts in a week, either. Once or twice a week is more than enough for one volunteer, especially if you have several others coming in, too.
Know when to say â€œNoâ€: Admittedly, this is one I have trouble with myself. We all like to be accommodating, and when a teen comes in needing forty hours of community service by next week, we want to help. There are also teens that come because their parents are forcing them, and it’s clear the teen has no real desire to be volunteering at the library. Situations like this aren’t helpful for you and your staff, though, and a bad volunteer isn’t worth the hassle, and is often more work than not having one at all. Sometimes the best thing to do is say, â€œNo thanks. We don’t need help right now.â€
And for a few ideas on what to have your volunteers do once they are ready to start working, why not try one of these?
Craft Prep: Not all volunteers have mastered the art of using scissors, especially younger teen volunteers, but if you have any that you can trust with craft preparation, your fingers will thank you! We know that teens love crafts, and helping to prepare them for story times and programs is no exception. Younger children may not be able to handle elaborate cutting crafts, but if you have teen volunteers that are able to do the cutting beforehand you can do more complicated things with your younger patrons.
Book cleaning: If there’s one thing we can all count on, it’s that library books and materials get DIRTY, be they in public, school, or academic libraries. A damp rag or some paper towels and a spray bottle with book cleaning solution in the hands of teen volunteers can make a run-down collection look newer in only a couple of hours. This is also a great task for those volunteers with short attention spans or limited skills, since it requires little training and isn’t something that usually needs to be completed on a schedule.
Homework Help: Depending on what your library’s policies are, both teen and adult volunteers can be a great help in the afternoons after school doing homework help. Have a math whiz teen that hangs at your library every afternoon? Put her to work helping out younger kids with their math homework. Have a retired English teacher looking for a way to help in the community? Set up a table for him in your children’s department in the afternoon to help students with their grammar. Your patrons will appreciate the help!