At the Westminster Public Library, we strive to provide inclusive and high-quality programming with and for our community. The Summer Reading Program (SRP), albeit traditional in nature, is no exception. From young to young at heart, everyone in Westminster is encouraged to participate and demonstrate positive literacy habits in our community. Rather than toys and trinkets, youth participants earn new books to keep after completion of the first reading level. Thanks to the Dollar General Literacy Foundation grant, we were able to continue providing new and diverse titles to our youth. As a double whammy, this prize approach not only encourages reading for pleasure, it also provides a rewarding volunteer opportunity for teens.
Managing daily SRP submissions and distributing prizes is a tall order for a lean 2-branch library system. As such, we rely on the generosity and skills of our teen patrons. Given that many schools in our area require community service hours, this opportunity has become a volunteer magnet. In previous years, Westminster Public Library has accepted upwards of 100 teen volunteers per summer. Think this sounds too good to be true? Well, in a sense, you’re right. Quantity doesn’t guarantee quality, and this volunteer program is the perfect example.
One problem teen services librarians love to have, is too many teenagers. However, when said teens are the face of your library throughout the summer, our standards go up as their expectations go down. During previous summers at Westminster Public Library, teen volunteer issues have included, but are not limited to: not showing up for shifts, sleeping, fidgeting with phones, and a general unwillingness to help. Word on the street was that the library offered easy volunteer hours with air conditioning to boot. With the 2019 Summer Reading Program around the corner, we knew we needed to try something new.
If teens were not invested and library staff was working harder to keep them engaged and on task, the value of the opportunity was in question on both ends. That’s when we realized the library may be for everyone, but volunteer opportunities are not. In an attempt to remedy this dilemma, we implemented a selective SRP volunteer cycle. Beginning with a standard volunteer application, teens were expected to complete and submit this basic form to the city. All applicants progressed to an in-personal panel interview hosted by both teen services librarians and additional library staff. Teens who were accepted were then invited to orientation to establish expectations. Following their training, they used an online sign-up system to manage their own shifts. To close out the summer, teens submitted feedback in exchange for their signed statement of volunteer hours.
Overall, this year’s SRP teen volunteer experience has been a tremendous success, and we have achieved more positive outcomes than expected. Most importantly, we recognize that the application and interview process created an organic weeding effect. As a result, our pool of highly-capable and committed teen volunteers provided valuable support to our staff with significantly less oversight. Additionally, teens gained real-world experience by completing administrative tasks, building customer service skills, and engaging directly with the community. In the end, we learned that we get out what we put in; our commitment to the process delivered 70 teens that were truly committed to the experience.
Kaela Delgado is the Teen Services Librarian at Westminster Public Library in Colorado.