How to Recruit, Train, and Use Volunteers

In these days of budget cuts and slashed payrolls, volunteers can make the difference between a thriving library or just a room with some books on the shelves. We talked with three school librarians about ways they have recruited, trained and used volunteers so that you can take their best practices and see what works for you and your specific needs.

We talked with three school librarians, each with very different needs and wants from their volunteer helpers. Lynn Folk, of Myersville Elementary in Maryland, has a small but dedicated team of three volunteers. Janie Cowan of Settles Bridge Elementary in Georgia and Suzanne Ross of Park Glen Elementary in Texas each have several volunteers in their core group but use them in different ways.


For Lynn Folk, less is more. She is blessed with a mother/grandmother team who have been jointly volunteering for several years. They came originally in response to a general invitation when their daughter/granddaughter was in Kindergarten. Now, little Sophie is in seventh grade and her relatives are so at home at the library that they come every Friday when five classes come in for book check in and check out. The secret to their commitment? “They like the work and we are like minded,” explains Ms. Folk. They have a common interest in books and travel and what better way to build a team? Plus, Lynn adds, “Retired people have a great work ethic.”

Just like Sophie’s keenly interested relatives, Suzanne Ross has also discovered the power and benefits of recruiting most heavily from the kindergarten parent base. She likes to have a parent come with the kids when they go to the library and because the school policy limits parental involvement in actual classes, this is one way that parents can interact with their children, their children’s classmates, and teachers. Ms. Ross has found that these volunteers tend to stay on all five years. She also is in communication with the PTA volunteer coordinator about her specific needs. “Getting the teachers involved is the key,” explains Ms. Ross. If they put out the word to the students, the volunteers will come. “The best recruiting is when I connect it with their children’s class and ask them to stay on an extra half hour or so getting teachers involved is the key.”

Dr. Janie Cowan begins her school year recruiting efforts during the Open House at the beginning of the school year and a library volunteer form is included in the home room teacher packets and on the school website. She is the sole library staff member for a school with 1000 children so volunteers are not a luxury, they are a necessity. The form asks for days and times of availability and Dr. Cowan builds a schedule from there and often three or four are scheduled at a time.


So now you have your volunteers’ contact information and scheduling needs. How do you train them? Not surprisingly, all of the librarians with whom we spoke find that a one on one approach is best. This way, you understand each volunteer’s strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes. This also helps to establish the relationship. “I think it builds a sense of allegiance,” says Dr. Cowan. She trains everyone to do everything but recognizes that each person needs a different level of instruction. “They might be embarrassed to admit they don’t know the Dewey Decimal System,” she confides.

Suzanne Ross takes a similar approach after having tried a general informational sheet. The volunteers shadow her and as she sees them becoming more comfortable, she adds more independent tasks. The supreme test? “When they are comfortable with shelving, they venture into the 599s which are usually a disaster.”


How you use your volunteers depends on their frequency and what you want from them. Suzanne finds that volunteers are usually good with circulation while Janie prefers not to have volunteers work with the catalog and the circulation system. “I like being behind the desk so I can interact with them about the books they are choosing.” She then comments on a note she received from a student the day before, thanking her for helping her choose a book. He wrote that she is “always smiling” and one can hear the smile in her voice even over the phone as she exclaims that “Boys are reading this year We’re checking out 400 500 books a day!”

Janie Cowan builds the schedule in Outlook so that each day’s volunteers are reminded automatically. While the initial labor is significant, the payoff is definitely worth the effort.


Suzanne finds that the biggest incentive beyond time with their children is that volunteers are allowed an extra ten book checkouts with no fines. She has discovered this is a powerful incentive that she was able to set up by creating a new category Library Volunteer in her library’s system.

Most schools have some kind of volunteer recognition at the end of the school year and library volunteers are included. Additionally, Dr. Cowan sends personal thank you notes to each volunteer, again reinforcing that connection and commitment.

Whether you have three volunteers like Lynn, ten like Suzanne, or dozens like Janie, a well run volunteer program can help you make even more of an impact on the students at your school so that the library is not just a room with books and computers but the place where a lifelong love of learning and reading begins.

If you have had experiences with volunteers in your school or public library that you would like to share, email them to us at so we can pass them on.