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TL v63n1: Christy Groves
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Viewpoint: Staff Development

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The Volunteer Spirit:  Lessons from a Lifelong Tennessean 

Christy Groves

Born and raised in East Tennessee, I am a true Tennessee Volunteer.  Since childhood, I have loved to help people and learn new things.  While I am not a “master” at anything, I enjoy getting involved in a variety of activities, work, and hobbies.  At an early age, I learned that a good way to get involved and assist others is to serve as a volunteer.   The best of both worlds, right?  Volunteering is a good fit for my love of helping others and “jack of all trades/master of none” personality.

While growing up, I frequently heard my mother say that the best things in life are free.    My parents were born during the Depression and have always embodied the epitome of “solid work ethics.”  In high school, while several of my friends got jobs at the mall, my folks advised me to become a volunteer at a few local organizations.  They figured it might expose me to potential (and long term) career interests and pave my college road.  In 11th grade, my best friend Sherry asked me why I chose to work for free.  I recall her question left me dumbfounded.  “Of course I work for free,” I told her.  “I’m a volunteer and I like it.  Volunteers don’t work to be paid.  They work because they like it.”

A simple statement from the uncluttered mind of a sixteen year old, but the summary alludes to the rationale behind volunteerism.  Becoming a volunteer is a way an individual can personalize his/her opportunities to grow, learn new skills, and develop a sense of pride by helping others.  So while in high school, I volunteered at the local public library, the Visitor’s Bureau, and an art gallery.  Guess what stuck?  My parents were right about volunteerism leading to a career path for me. 

 Libraries and Volunteerism

Experience is an effective way to learn, so I believe that being a volunteer since youth has given me tools to appreciate the nuances and complexities surrounding volunteerism.   As we all know, volunteers come in a variety of personalities and talents.   We also know that (due to external funding pressures) libraries spend a great deal of time and effort strategizing ways to do more with less.  Thus, volunteers can be a crucial component of our libraries. 

Partner Passion with Needs

Library volunteers typically have a passion for something specific, and successful volunteer coordinators have a knack for partnering volunteer interests with library needs.  For example, at my public library, shelf reading was a crucial need that the overburdened staff had no time to address, so volunteers assisted.  Throughout my high school volunteering, I read a lot of library shelves and re-shelved materials where they truly belonged.   Thus, the library benefitted from my free labor, I learned in-depth the library’s adult fiction collection, and patrons found materials right where they belonged.

Don’t Over Assign Work

Volunteers can burn out quickly if they are given too many complex assignments or are relied upon for too much of a time commitment.  Determining such boundaries is tricky, as they are personalized to the individual volunteer.  Some volunteers may be able to devote numerous hours each week to a library.  Others may only be able to serve a couple of hours a month.  As a result, each library must determine how much work to delegate to volunteers as well as the complexity of assigned tasks.  Additionally, libraries must be prepared for a volunteer’s  commitment to change frequently and/or to fall through completely.  Even in our great Volunteer State where people love to help one another, volunteer activities are typically the first to go when an individual re-prioritizes his/her time commitments.

Say Thank You with Sincerity (and say it often)

Unlike paid employees, volunteers are typically not subject to evaluation processes or disciplinary actions.  Volunteers do make mistakes, as we are all human.   This poses another challenge to libraries with volunteers.  Even if the volunteer misunderstands an assignment or carries it out incorrectly, being overly critical of a volunteer’s work risks losing a valuable contributor.  Although I was slow and thus did not shelf read my public library’s entire fiction section each week, the volunteer coordinator thanked me frequently for my work, and I felt great knowing that I was providing a valuable service.  (BTW, shelf reading is definitely not a favorite task among most of us, is it?)

Volunteerism in Library Associations

Another critical piece of volunteerism in librarianship involves us as library employees serving in library associations.  Today’s library job force is over-extended.  I believe this is because life overall is so much more.  More demands, more challenges, more choices, more everything.  Thus, I am always fielding and juggling more.   I know that I am not alone in my frequent feelings of drowning under work. 

That said, serving in important roles in library associations can be difficult to sustain.  I believe library employees across the board have a service philosophy and that spurs our continued success as a profession.  However, finding the balance between job duties and volunteering in local, state, and national associations is challenging.  I have served in a number of volunteer roles since moving to MTSU, and I continue to struggle with this balance.  I believe the key is to prioritize regularly and remain flexible. 

On the flip side, leaders in library associations (sometimes volunteering for this lead role themselves!) are challenged in managing volunteers.  Volunteerism in library associations also typically requires extra time allocation for traveling to meetings, conferences, or planning discussions.   Time constraints and logistics often stagnate projects, unfortunately, so this requires volunteer coordinators and association leaders to find creative and accommodating solutions for completing work. 

Long Live the Volunteer

Regardless of where or how someone serves in libraries, I believe the volunteer spirit is to be commended and nurtured.  A person’s willingness to help others can bring satisfaction and inspiration in this nation’s fast and self-focused pace.  My volunteer experiences have been rewarding throughout my entire life, starting with that first range of shelves I read for free at age sixteen.  We are a state of Volunteers, and I’m proud to be part of our continued commitment to librarianship.  From one volunteer to another – thank you!

 

Christy Groves is the Head of User Services at the Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University. She can be reached at christy.groves@mtsu.edu.
 
 
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