Opportunity to strengthen and develop local libraries

For the libraries of today, it is quite natural to examine the possibilities for developing the local library’s services through new partnerships. Here collaboration with enthusiastic volunteers in the local community springs to mind. Experience has taught us that this kind of collaboration can enhance the value of the local library. But how does one involve the volunteers in a constructive way, which considers the interest of volunteers as well as the library staff?

For several years, Billund and Ikast-Brande Libraries in Jutland have enjoyed a close collaboration with volunteers about libraries in small urban communities. As far as the volunteers are concerned, the background for this collaboration is i.a. a strong wish to sustain and vitalize cultural offers locally, and for the libraries, it is a question of the undoubted advantage of having a clearly defined collaboration group, which can communicate the library’s offers, assist in practical tasks – and primarily act as local ‘library ambassadors’.

In the project Active citizenship (2012) the two municipalities have charted and systematized the collaboration with volunteers and developed models and recommendations, which will be described in the following. The project was carried out with financial support from the Danish Agency for Culture.

Volunteers as staff

The volunteers should become a natural part of the library organization and not just undertake isolated tasks. There should be frequent meetings, so that volunteers and staff get to know each other well, and the borderlines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are removed. The shared feeling of responsibility in relation to the local library is the glue that unites volunteers and staff and creates synergy.

Management should incorporate the collaboration with volunteers in the personnel policy and enter into a dialogue with the volunteers about their approach to and experiences of the collaboration.

Objectives and action plans for the collaboration in the local library should be worked out in order to provide a common frame of reference for staff as well as volunteers – so that, for example, the staff do not feel that the volunteers are taking the work away from them.

Competency requirements

Clarification and development of competences is another important area. The volunteers possess widely differing competences and expectations in relation to the partnership, and it is essential to clarify both aspects before each volunteer starts work.

Library staff need to develop their competences in terms of directing and developing the collaboration. They should, for example, be able to facilitate processes and motivate volunteers. Conflict management and people skills are also very important competences.

Communication and information might pose challenges to the collaboration between permanent staff and volunteers. The volunteers need to be well informed in terms of the library’s services, activities and new initiatives to enable them to act as ‘library ambassadors’. Guidelines should therefore be prepared for this area of collaboration.

Professional leadership

Our project shows that when collaboration with volunteers is based on respect, appreciation and professionalism, the possibilities of sustaining and strengthening the local library offer are very good, indeed. The collaboration also offers the potential for developing a comprehensive library service in the municipality and improving it even further. I would, therefore, wholeheartedly encourage the partnership with volunteers.

In connection with the project, a manual has been published: Volunteers in the library, which can be downloaded via Billund Libraries’ homepage.

Head of Libraries and Community Service Billund Libraries