YA Strike Zone June 2015

Reimagining the YA Volunteer

Anthony Bernier

During his inaugural address in January of 1961, the just-elected John F. Kennedy called a new generation of Americans to public service, issuing some of the most quoted words in American history: “Ask not,” the young president said, “what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Two things. First, this line, so well-documented as Kennedy’s, wasn’t his. Second, we can modify the quote to infuse a new way to consider YA volunteering beyond what we have in the past.

Not only did JFK not write this most famous line, neither did his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. The quote was actually lifted (unattributed) from the speech of a radical 19th century women’s suffragette in calling for women to fight for the right to vote!

The more important point here, however, is that libraries can modify this sentiment, irrespective of its origin, to reimagine one of the oldest, overlooked, and undervalued service opportunities with young people. Decade after decade libraries have used (and I deploy this term advisedly) YA volunteer labor as “extra help” in performing mundane, repetitive, or lesser-valued tasks.

Instead of reducing YA volunteers, however, to furnishing libraries with this “extra labor,” I want to issue this call: “Ask not what your YA volunteers can do for you, but what you can do for your YA volunteers.”

This, I understand, rather inverts conventional expectations of “volunteering.” But that convention is rooted in our experience with adults. Serving teens, on the other hand, is different.

A few years ago, I conducted preliminary research on a mid-sized urban library system’s YA volunteer experience. I examined branch manager monthly statistical reports for two straight years. It surprised even me to discover that teens donated 63 percent of the system’s entire volunteer labor!

Yet, enthusiastic young adults present themselves every day and libraries continue to treat the experience as a perpetual afterthought. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the story of a librarian looking around, befuddled, and saying something like, “Ok, well now, let’s see what we can get you do to”–as if YA volunteers are new to libraries!

So, it’s no surprise that teens get assigned the most repetitive and routine tasks: the lowest hanging fruit. You know these tasks, ranging everywhere from paper pick-up, to shelf-dusting, to “higher-level” tasks like signing-up children for the Summer Reading Program. Things, at base, we’d rather not do ourselves.

This is the very kind of cynicism and expedience, however, motivating Kennedy to challenge youth to overcome. He wanted young people excited about public service. He urged them to see themselves as citizens capable of changing the world.

That’s a long way from picking up trash and cleaning book covers.

How might libraries take this volunteer capacity more seriously instead of merely assigning them things we don’t much value? What if libraries imagined them more like the citizens of Kennedy’s vision? What if we asked ourselves, ahead of time, what we could do for them during their experience with us?

First, if we were to begin taking their time (as well as our own contributions) more seriously, we’d have a plan before they walk in the door. We’d assemble a strategy in cooperation with the rest of the staff. We’d organize a library orientation so they would meet the staff, know where to stow their book bags, and learn a check-in routine each time they arrive.

Then, if we considered how a brief exposure to the library as a public service could benefit young people (rather than the other way around), we’d come up with radically new ways to interact with them and we’d use an entirely different vocabulary.

Young adults, once properly oriented and prepared, could observe various staff people in the conduct of their duties, say, a staff meeting or reference desk shift, and log their observations for follow-up discussions. They might shadow various staff (not only YA staff) as they attend any number of public service responsibilities. After observing and shadowing, young adults then might mirror professionals or paraprofessionals, for instance, and help revise a display or refresh a merchandized collection.

Such exposures and “experiential sips” offer teens, especially those from immigrant or working-class backgrounds, valuable opportunities to see how professional public service works close-up and at “ground” level. But these exposures, especially after a practice run or two, adapt easily to a rotational basis so that different staff contribute over time. A rotation also allows staff a way to expose curious and energetic youth to people and roles that might not otherwise be considered as providing public service—like back-of-the-shop technical staff, HR, other support roles, and administrators. On the other hand, it also offers staff an opportunity to be recognized valuing positive contributions to their community by young adults.

Yes, I did say administrators could play a role. The brief fifteen-minute informational interview is an excellent way for young people to gain all kinds of useful and practical experiences. Reviewing job descriptions and work plans, examining planning documents (even brief budget previews), observing how a professional’s desktop and files are organized—are all useful “sips.”

Note that none of these “sips” compete with labor performed by paid staff.

Of course, there is nothing “wrong” with folding-in a variety of more mundane tasks, as long as they do not define the volunteer’s entire exposure. There is nothing inherently bad about sitting at a table with three or four peer volunteers and chatting and cleaning book covers for an hour. But reducing YA experience exclusively to these tasks squanders a potentially rich opportunity for building affinity, exposure, and job-readiness experience in public service.

A strong service response would, especially at the conclusion of a volunteer’s rotation (frequently defined by required community service hours), inquire about the experience with an evaluation or interview to help constantly improve the opportunity for the inevitable next volunteers. Any quality program invests in evaluation. YA volunteering is a YA program. The program would end with a letter of recommendation for the young adult’s inevitable job hunt.

Reimagining YA volunteerism requires reimagining young adults. It requires seeing them not through the trite, simplistic, and dated “youth-at-risk” or “youth development” lenses, but through the lens a young president once did when he called a new generation to rise as citizens in a broadly democratic and public culture. Let’s renew that vision and start asking what it is that we can do for them.

Bernier headshotAnthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State’s School of Library and Information Science where he concentrates on research and teaching on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and administrator veteran and former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, he recently edited The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Dorothy M. Broderick, a Festschrift honoring Broderick, VOYA’s cofounder (VOYA Press, 2013). He lives in Oakland (CA) and rides a BMW R1100RT.



  1. […] June 2015: Reimagining the YA Volunteer […]

  2. I’ve had a few inquires about the source supporting my opening paragraph, so I thought others might like to see it as well:

    Here is the original quote: “Let our watchword from henceforth be, not what can our country, our government do for us, but rather, what can we do for our country and the perpetuity of our government?… The time has come when the patriot men of American must call in the reserves and summon women to the glorious service of aiding to save our country from the combinations of vice and selfishness… our hour for self-sacrificing service is here.” 

    The originator is Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, 1883. 

    The article quoting Harbert is:
    Steven M. Buechler, “Elizabeth Boynton Harbert and the Women Suffrage Movement, 1870-1896,” Signs 13, no. 1, 1987, page 86.

    The original source for Buechler’s article was Harbert, “Woman’s Kingdom,” Schlesinger Library, Cambridge, MA, Harbert Papers, Woman’s Kingdom scrapbook, vol. 5. 28 June, 1883.

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