Volunteerism in public libraries is impeded by a culture of volunteer management, which measures output purely in terms of hours served. Most library services feel compelled to take on anyone who is willing to offer their services free of charge. More often than not, public library volunteers are given a list of specific tasks with prescribed outcomes. For volunteers, this scenario can present limited options; for library staff, it can amount to pressure to create work to keep volunteers busy. Spearheading a cultural shift away from transactional volunteerism toward transformational volunteering is the California State Library’s state-wide initiative, Get Involved: powered by your library. At its core, this project is driven by volunteer engagement: an emerging theoretical and practical model of approaching, perceiving and working with volunteers.
This paper will present results of action research and case study analysis undertaken during an internship at California State Library in November 2014 and site visits to leading Californian libraries in volunteer engagement programming. This research was wholly funded by the Library Board of Victoria’s Barrett Reid Scholarship.
At a strategic level, volunteer engagement is fuelled by staff and volunteer collaboration and the development of high-impact, skills-based volunteer opportunities in a project delivery context. For libraries, the volunteer engagement model paves the way for creating an ‘open space’ in which people can engage with, and contribute to, projects according to their own schedules and skills strengths. By encouraging the utilisation of volunteers’ own unique skills, volunteer engagement offers all demographics the opportunity to contribute to the cultural output of libraries in ways that are personally gratifying to the individual, and mutually beneficial for the library and community at large. This better meets the needs of today's volunteers, better aligns with the needs of the library, and brings enhanced and expanded library services to the community.
Get Involved provides Californian public libraries with an online clearing house of resources to support library staff to effectively engage with volunteers. As a result of my research into the Californian model and funding from my scholarship, I have been able to develop a dedicated website for sharing models, tools and management ideas from California and Victoria, and would like to launch this nationally at the ALIA National 2016 Conference.
By harnessing a model of volunteer engagement, all library services can build better volunteer programs, and in the process, extend their services and programs, and increase their capacity building, place-making and cultural output. The project offers the library sector a suite of benefits that can be both readily applied and extended:
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