Are There Any Volunteers?: A pain-free approach to getting the very best out of parents

Illustrations by Marc Rosenthal.

Illustrations by Marc Rosenthal.

With more than 30 years on the job, Cassandra Barnett has seen loads of parent volunteers make a genuine difference in the school library—and others who disappear after a week or so. “I had mothers who wanted to volunteer, but they canceled as often as they came,” says Barnett, a media specialist at Arkansas’ Fayetteville High School and past president of the American Association of School Librarians. “These are well-meaning people. But if they didn’t show up or moved away, I would have put a lot of time into training them and have nothing to show for it.”

That won’t come as much of a shock to school librarians nationwide. While volunteers can be the backbone of a library, there’s a fine art to crafting a well-oiled team of helpers, especially in these tough economic times when a nonpaid assistant can end up taking your job.

Case in point? Librarians at Bridgewater Middle School and Raynham Middle School in Massachusetts recently lost their positions, and parent volunteers are now being trained to shelve and circulate books—despite the objections of the Bridgewater Raynham Education Association. While handing a library over to parents is certainly not the norm, many media specialists are now working with skeleton crews.

Of course, recruiting students is often the most ideal scenario. They’re already on-site and usually earn some sort of school credit, which gives them an incentive to show up on time, and regularly. Barnett gives out service credits, along with grades, to students who are assigned responsibilities such as shelving books properly. And those who make the cut spend the first week of school receiving extensive training, which includes learning how to shelve, answer phones correctly, speak appropriately with teachers, and treat fellow student library users with respect.

Barnett finds that training students thoroughly, and then giving them some proprietary control over certain tasks—such as keeping specific shelves neatly organized in their own assigned area of the library—gives them a sense of ownership and pride in their work. “We treat it just like a job,” she says. “They apply for the position, get recommendations, and we do interviews. That experience has been wonderful.”

While Barnett’s students can’t get more than a year’s credit for working in the library, some find it so rewarding that they stay for another year, forcing her to turn newcomers away. On rare occasions there’s someone who decides to turn it into a lifelong career. “Last year we had a former student aide who contacted us for letters of reference for an MLS program,” she says.

But when students just aren’t an option, parent volunteers can be crucial. “There’s no way I could present the high-quality program that I have without my volunteers,” says Heidi Snively, a library media specialist at Grand View Elementary School in Manhattan Beach, CA, who’s managed to recruit about 70 parent helpers. “I am happy they volunteer because it sends a message to the children about the importance of school, books, and reading.” Snively can even boast about a roster of repeat moms and dads—and many others who often corner her the year before in hopes of securing a place on her team.

The tasks she lays out for her crew are fairly routine: staffing the circulation desk, checking out books, and even some light dusting. Volunteers are also encouraged to interact with students, as opposed to each other, to guarantee that kids have a positive library experience. Snively always starts off the school year with about two hours of training, showing volunteers how to use the computer and the Dewey Decimal System, among other library procedures. She’s also created a set of guidelines that are posted on the library’s website (, which details everything from shelving to checking out books—a task in which Snively humorously emphasizes that “accuracy is more important than ‘spede.’”

Volunteers are given a near script on how they should behave when students come in for read-alouds or lessons—for instance, don’t disrupt kids who are listening to a presentation by shelving books. Such detailed guidance means Snively doesn’t have to repeat herself constantly—and it also helps parents understand exactly what’s expected of them. Although with her volunteers, Snively knows they can handle anything she throws their way. “These are people who in some cases have run corporations and are now in the school library,” she says. “So they’re very capable and conscientious.”

Unfortunately, that kind of dedication isn’t always the norm—which is why some media specialists distribute assignments more judiciously. As many teachers and media specialists know, there’s nothing worse than parents who only take on projects that serve their self-interest—but are apathetic when a librarian truly needs their help. Or worse, parents who voice their own opinions when it comes to certain subjects or to books in the library’s collection. Then there are those occasional caregivers who use volunteering as a way to snoop, perhaps peering from behind a stepladder while shelving a book to see how their own children are doing or doing some recon on how a teacher interacts with their kids.

Jane Fenn, an instructor in Mansfield University’s online School Library and Information Technologies master’s degree program, recommends assigning evergreen projects that aren’t time sensitive, such as creating a seasonal reading bulletin board. “So if it doesn’t get done, the world doesn’t grind to a halt,” she explains.

Her biggest shocker? Volunteers should not check out books. While the work seems fairly simple and requires little training, Fenn sees it as a potential violation of privacy. She once worked with a public library that trained its volunteers to remain silent about any book a patron checked out, even if they liked it. Fenn believes that same rule should apply to parents who check out materials or help students choose books. “A school librarian should encourage that conversation about what a child is checking out,” says Fenn. “But not a volunteer. They don’t have the training to know what the best language is to use with children.”

Remember, volunteers work for free so flexibility is key. That means not sweating it if a task doesn’t get done right away, she adds. Creating a checklist of what’s realistically expected from nonpaid help ( may help better manage your expectations. EduScapes, a lifelong learning website created by educators Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, also offers helpful guidelines for managing a successful parent volunteer program.

In the end, Fenn believes an effective volunteer is one who knows his responsibilities and time commitments before taking the plunge. That’s why it’s crucial for schools and PTAs to start recruiting help at the start of the new school year, and to provide specifics about the days, hours, and training required, as well as links to an online manual or brochure. “That way they know up front,” she says. “And that can help.”

More often than not, volunteers are open to helping out with just about any task. “For me, it’s usually a project that’s not urgent but has some importance,” says Barnett, remembering one parent who turned the contents of an old card catalog into student bookmarks. “Then, it’s not important if they can’t come in every day, but we end up with a product we can use and they feel they’ve accomplished something too.”

Then there are the volunteers that make a lasting impression. Mel Ryane, who walked into Walgrove Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA, six years ago, went from a part-time volunteer to running an after-school Shakespeare program that’s beloved by teachers and students alike. “These are kids, and they don’t really care if you work for free,” she says. “The rewards are bigger than you imagine.”

And while that’s the attitude educators and school librarians hope for, these experiences don’t always have happy endings. That why it’s crucial to rein in your expectations and to be realistic. Kathy Wachs, a library media specialist at Stormonth Elementary School in Fox Point, WI, had a full-time library assistant, but in 2003 her hours were slashed 50 percent. Now Wachs relies on 14 parent volunteers who make use of an extensive and detailed online volunteer handbook and help her run overdue notices, check books, and sometimes shelve. That way, if someone doesn’t show up, there’s always a sub. “But if not,” she says, “we manage.”

Ann Jason Kenney, the librarian at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, VT, has one parent who volunteers one day of her time each week. Still, there are more parents who’d rather work with the school’s “Friends” group, which raises money to buy new fiction, lamps, and even reading chairs for the library. To Kenney, this is a better use of parents who may lack the right skills set, but can still add value to a program. “You have to be very up front,” she says. “You have to explore what they want to do and see if it will work. If they don’t like it, what can you do? You need to protect the library.”

The bottom line? Jean Wilkins, a former director of the Illinois State Library, suggests that librarians get to know their volunteers’ strengths and weaknesses before assigning a specific task. (A helpful form can be found at She also puts a premium on recruiting helpers who can complement her own assets. “I would be looking for someone who had strengths I didn’t have,” she says. “If they’re not a good fit with working with people, for example, you may want to move them behind the scenes where they don’t have contact with teachers and children.”

To get the best out of volunteers, it’s essential that they feel useful, says Wilkins. Volunteers who arrive at the library only to discover that there’s nothing for them to do may end up wondering why they agreed to donate their time. So it’s important for a librarian to know how— and where — to use them. “The opportunity for success would then be much greater than just saying, ‘We need some volunteers and why don’t you come in on Wednesday, and we’ll see what you can do,’” says Wilkins. “That’s getting off to the wrong start.”

In the end, it’s all about figuring out how best to use mom and dad and not depending on them for the essentials. And that’s where a can-do attitude and a knack for going with the flow may come in handy. “I just tell them there’s one of me, 14 of you, and 15,000 books,” says Stormonth Elementary’s Wachs to her volunteer team. “And we’re going to work it out.”

Help Is Here

If you’re looking for some more guidance on how to set up a volunteer program, these links can help you get started.

Alaska School Library Handbook

This wiki provides simple, step-by-step instructions and ways to integrate both parent and student volunteers into the library.

School District of Philadelphia School Library Handbook

Along with some common-sense advice, this handbook also provides links to additional outside sources.

Library Media Services Media Handbook

The best feature about this handbook from the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, FL, is a moving menu that media specialists can click to download templates, time sheets, and applications that can be customized for any school library volunteer program.

Maria Hastings Elementary School Volunteer Handbook

While aimed at schoolwide volunteers, the Lexington, MA, school’s handbook provides some strong guidelines on how to speak with parents to help them understand the best way to interact with students, including what they should—and should not—say.

“Valuable Volunteers: How to Find, Use, and Keep Them”

Sue McGown interviews other school librarians to get it right from the trenches on their best tips on how to organize, thank, and keep volunteers humming in media centers.

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