How to Run a Library Volunteer Program that Students Love

On an average day, at least 10 students help Laura Gardner run the Dartmouth (MA) Middle School library. Altogether, over 40 seventh and eighth-grade students work there each year. She couldn’t do it without them.
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Dartmout Middle school students Payton and Aidan delete and recatalog old reference books.

The bell just rang for the start of school at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School, and I’m still taking off my coat. Fifty to 60 students are about to flood into the library to print schoolwork, look for books, hang out, and play computer games for 15 minutes before the Pledge of Allegiance signals the start of homeroom. No worries. The lights and computers are on and the circulation desk computer is ready to go, thanks to the Leconte sisters, student volunteers who let themselves in each morning. Reilly, in eighth grade, and Reese, in sixth, check out books until they head off to their lockers. Then, eighth grader Normandy takes over while I circulate the library assisting students. On an average day, at least ten students help me run the library. Altogether, over 40 seventh and eighth-grade students work there each year. I couldn’t do it without them.

Why have student library volunteers?

Having student library volunteers frees me up to do more collaboration with teachers, one-on-one instruction at students’ point of need, and reader’s advisory. Like many school librarians. I operate a busy program with no paid assistance. While parent volunteers have always been a part of it, I was excited to start the school’s first student volunteer initiative when I started here six years ago. Since I’ve given students the responsibility to help plan and create displays and programs, the initiative has taken off. It’s now a hotly demanded leadership position. How it works library_volunteers_2

Eighth grade volunteers test-run Touchcast, am iPad app students use with green screens in the library.

Seventh and eighth grade students are eligible to be library assistants, positions that I promote during my sixth grade Library Skills class. Promotion is really unnecessary, though, since I probably get asked five times a week how to become a library assistant! The most common suggestion on my Padlet wall this year was to let sixth graders help in the library.  I have enough volunteers at the moment, and I love knowing all my volunteers from their year in my class. My middle school students crave responsibility and love doing authentic work. Every class period is busy. When library assistants aren’t working the circulation desk, they’re straightening books, running errands, and doing special projects like helping me delete weeded books, relabel my reorganized biography section, or set up a book buffet for an incoming class. Most students volunteer during free periods, but those with no room in their schedule volunteer before or after school. I treat the students like real employees and stress that this is a real job. I require that students be in good academic standing, and I check in with teachers at least twice a year. Occasionally, I’ve asked students to take a break until their grades have improved, and I’ve had to “fire” two students for various reasons. If I have a group of students in a class period, I often save big projects for them to complete together such as moving books, relabeling, or playing with new apps for the iPads.


Get administrator approval I’m lucky to work in a place with lots of support from my building administrators. Still, launching my volunteer program was not without its challenges. Proposing a change in student scheduling, which I had to do that first year, can be a tough argument. Make your case to administrators and guidance counselors (often in charge of scheduling) that your initiative will benefit the whole community and provide a leadership and service opportunity for students. My assistant principal, Carl Robidoux, said, “When students can connect with their environment they take better care of it, plus the program gives the school library new ideas, immediate feedback and a fresh set of eyes.” Bestow responsibility Requiring students to fill out an application ensures that they are interested in the position and not just in spending a free period in the library. The application I use is fairly simple, with an essay component (“Why do you want to be a library assistant?”), two teacher recommendations, and a parent signature. Most students who take the time to fill out the application are a good fit. Some may not yet be ready for the responsibility; don’t be afraid to take them aside and talk about what they need to do to become a library assistant the next year. Getting students who truly want the responsibility is important. Look for enthusiasm and excitement on the student applications; those students will be your rock star volunteers. For instance: “It would be lots of fun and an honor to help out in one of my favorite places. Plus, library assistants get to hang out with Ms. G!” Keep ‘em busy Maintain an ongoing list of tasks that volunteers can do. Those of us who have run solo programs for years may have difficulty delegating, but prioritizing your time as a professional is important. When I see a low level task that needs doing I add it to my special project list for parent or student volunteers. I also have a standard list that students can reference that includes things like look for trash, straighten books, water plants, push in chairs, clean tables and empty recycling. Make it special For middle school students, learning how to use the circulation system is special; my students fight over who gets to check in the books! Give them other special privileges, such as delivering reserved books to students around the school during class time. Nametags are another way to make the job special. Creating them seems like a small thing, but I’ve found that most students are thrilled to decorate and wear them while working in the library. Celebrate and appreciate Find a small way to say thank you to your volunteers. A simple breakfast party at the end of the year and thanking them for all their hard work goes a long way. Say “thank you” on a daily basis, and take the time to let students know how much you appreciate their assistance. I also write letters of recommendations for eighth graders that can be used for future employment and have been used as job references. Capitalize on their interests and talents “I absolutely love to read...I could show younger kids and kids my age who I know and influence them to read. Since I know these people, they might take my advice and end up reading more than ever.” —From a volunteer application essay Spending a little time to get to know student interests and talents is well worth the effort. I’m hopeless when it comes to bulletin boards and display ideas. Luckily, some of my student volunteers are always pros at this. One annual display they make shows their favorite books with notecards explaining their choices. We always have a huge jump in circulation when that’s up. I’ve also had students test out the new library website, iPad apps, ebooks, and green screens. Last year, they created book trailers using Animoto that were featured on our school website and on QR codes around the library. Some students have more outlying interests, such as eighth grader Kate, who enjoys reading the shelves in the nonfiction area and reordering books that are misplaced. She says that it’s relaxing to re-shelve books. I say I understand...and that she’s in the right place.
Laura GardnerLaura Gardner has been a school librarian for ten years and is a teacher librarian and National Junior Honor Society advisor at Dartmouth Middle School. A National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media, she serves on the board of the Massachusetts School Library Association. She and her husband live in Fairhaven, MA with their two young children.  
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Great ideas. Can you email me your generic ongoing things to do? I want to see if I can work on one to fit my library

Posted : May 29, 2015 02:04

Laura Gardner

I don't have your email, but here's my list of tasks. Student Volunteer Tasks Before School • Turn on computers • Turn on lights • Look for trash • Straighten books and magazines • Check books out • Cross out old dates on cards/post its • Change stamp for the day Academic Support/during School • Look for trash • Straighten books and magazines • Check books out and in • Straighten game area, Makerspace, chalkboard • Put items on cart in alpha/numeric order • Check and empty recycle bins • Check and re-order laptop cart • Update and plug in iPads • Deliver holds (librarian has to look up student schedule; make sure to check books out!) • Clean tables • Clean chalkboard and add new question • Headphones on top of computers • Vacuum if necessary • Push in chairs • Check to see if we need new passes After School • Turn off computers • Turn off lights • Look for trash • Straighten books and magazines • Check books in and out • Cross out old dates • Plug in iPads

Posted : Jun 04, 2015 10:14

Sabrina Nespeca

I didn't see 'shelve' in their tasks. Do you do all the shelving yourself?

Posted : Jul 07, 2015 07:21

Laura Gardner

Hi! Thanks for the comments. :) Applications for next year are actually due tomorrow so this all feels very fresh. I had to make 100 copies of the application and I've had 28 turned in so far. I will also keep 17 library assistants from last year who are current 7th graders. To address the question on privacy issues: it's an unfortunate trade-off I have had to make in terms of the books students check out. Students in our school are pretty proud of the number of books they read and if I ever got a book delivered for a student that seemed sensitive I would certainly deliver it myself. My circulation system doesn't have any other personal information on students; we have that in a separate program. When I ask students how they feel about getting books delivered they say they're happy they get the book quickly and they don't care about someone else knowing what they read. As for whether having students in authority creates barriers: I carefully train and select student volunteers who are polite and will help other students feel welcome. We talk about good customer service vs. bad customer service and how to make students feel welcome in the library. In the first two years I had some issues with this (I do an annual survey so I could see that students sometimes felt uncomfortable approaching student volunteers), but it has improved dramatically. I don't assess overdue fines. I handle any money brought in for lost books.

Posted : May 28, 2015 11:21

mary tokos

the privacy issue can be done by simply drawing up a contract for the students to sign. I have student volunteers and I was told that this would cover any issues of privacy and confidentiality. I went to a work shop that was run by the ALA. My contract is stated as follows: Library records relating to an individual patron's use of the library and its resources ar confidential. these records may be consulted and used only by library staff (including student volunteers) in the course of carrying out library operations, and will not be disclosed to others. By law, Library records which contain the names or other personally identying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed. I have read the above policy and understand the importance of information of privacy. (have students sign and date)

Posted : Jan 08, 2016 01:02

Laura Gardner

GREAT idea. Thank you so much. :)

Posted : Mar 04, 2016 05:52


I don`t doubt that you will find many students who like to volunteer, but I also like the idea to write an application essay to understand if the students really want to help you. I was a volunteer last summer and for me to write this essay was harder than summer work after. I recommend Essay Penguins to all scared of this assignment students, they will help you fast and quality.

Posted : May 27, 2015 07:17

Catherine Spinella

I love this idea! And I know my students would love to help with circulation. One question, do you assess fines for overdue books? If so, do your student volunteers handle money?

Posted : May 27, 2015 12:17


I echo what the first commenter said: how do you deal with privacy issues? I had plenty of children who volunteered to work at my middle school library, but I couldn't let them use my computer to check things out to other children because they would see the patron's private information. I allowed students to assist with shelving and displays, but all circulation duties had to be done by me.

Posted : May 26, 2015 11:33


Thanks for this piece. How do you deal with privacy concerns when your student volunteers have access to everyone's checkouts, and even deliver books to other kids? Do you feel that having particular, select kids there in coveted positions of authority creates barriers for other types of kids? I'm thinking about reluctant readers or kids who simply run in totally different social circles and may find it difficult to have to interact with the kids you've selected in order to get books/information. Would appreciate your thoughts!

Posted : May 25, 2015 05:16



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