Voluntary Library Work Dependable Volunteers

Senior citizens in the library
Senior citizens in the library | Photo (detail): © Colourbox

Active citizenship is becoming increasingly important in our ageing society. Libraries are also offering senior citizens a wide variety of opportunities to undertake voluntary work.

German society is becoming older all the time. And as life expectancy rates increase, so too do expectations of a fulfilling existence – even after retirement from professional life. Social contact, solid structures and acknowledgment and recognition give voluntary work a meaningful character. At the same time, it gives pleasure to active senior citizens. As a result, active citizenship is becoming increasingly important.

Voluntary work is playing a growing role in libraries too, with tens of thousands of people donating their time, as a German-wide survey conducted by the German Library Association (dbv) has revealed. How often and how long the volunteers work in libraries varies greatly and can range from just a few hours a month to regular weekly shifts. Most tend to stick with it for quite some time: 93 percent of volunteers working in libraries have been involved for more than a year.

The Bücherhallen Hamburg example

Nearly 400 people work as volunteers at the Bücherhallen Hamburg, a major urban library system operating 36 branches. “I would estimate that up to 50 percent of our volunteers are over 60 years old, though all of our voluntary projects are open to all generations”, explains Uta Keite, who is responsible for active citizenship at Bücherhallen Hamburg.

In Hamburg there are four main projects in which volunteers can get actively involved: discussion groups for people of migrant origin, an integration project to promote language acquisition in early childhood, reading aloud sessions and a volunteer-run media delivery service for house-bound library users. Within the framework of the latter project, for example, 170 media delivery volunteers are out and about all over Hamburg.

Each media delivery volunteer is responsible for one library user who is either no longer mobile or is very old. “The book or audio book that is delivered to their door is important, but equally important is the time devoted to them, and having someone who listens to them”, explains Uta Keite.

The role of the volunteer

Whether it is a question of helping to run reading and historical witness cafés, organizing readings or staging second-hand book sales: the tasks taken on by volunteers in libraries can be pretty varied. In rural regions and in local and church libraries volunteers may even assume managerial duties such as taking complete responsibility for a library – especially in cases where there is no funding available to pay salaried staff.

As a dbv position paper entitled Libraries and Active Citizenship points out, however, “politicians and administrative bodies all too often advertise for volunteers who are needed to fill the gap left when professionally qualified staff are not (no longer) sufficiently available.” The risk of this practice is that both volunteers and full-time salaried personnel are downgraded and played off against one another.

Volunteers in a supplementary role

“We intentionally do not use volunteers in the everyday running of our libraries”, explains Uta Keite. “This may work in a small local library where a handful of children’s books and novels are loaned out for just five hours per week. However, it does not work in a large and highly professional operation such as ours. Many simple processes such as the lending and return of media are now automated in our libraries. For everything else proper training is needed – libraries today are simply too complex.”

At the Bücherhallen Hamburg, volunteers are therefore used in a supplementary role. “We use our volunteers solely to provide additional services. These are services which could not be financed without the time devoted by volunteers, but which we believe are urgently needed in society.”

Volunteers generate paid positions

In Hamburg, all volunteers are given special training – depending on their particular task – and are supervised by a salaried employee. “We make sure that we do not undertake any voluntary projects without involving full-time paid staff”, emphasizes Uta Keite. It is also not the intention at the Bücherhallen to use volunteers to plug gaps incurred by budgetary cuts. On the contrary, voluntary projects can generate additional paid positions.

“As our society becomes older and older, opportunities for people to involve themselves and contribute must be found. Our projects represent a satisfactory response to the great demand of volunteers seeking meaningful areas of activity”, stresses Uta Keite. For the Bücherhallen, the successful voluntary projects have meanwhile become an important marketing instrument, allowing the library to create an entirely new reputation for itself in the city. What is more, there is no sign of any shortage of volunteers – both young and old. Some projects in Hamburg even have waiting lists.