When Nerds Collide

Mary Kelly —  May 16, 2013 — 3 Comments

iStock_000010371820XSmallI have a complicated relationship with the volunteers in library land.  In my career, I have probably worked with hundreds of volunteers.  These range from enthusiastic, sharp folks looking to make a serious contribution to their local library to those less than gifted.  (I have stories, but that is another blog post.)

Recently, I was lucky enough to have a group of people who wanted to contribute time as a team building exercise.  It is difficult to create meaningful work on short notice, but a co-worker and I came up with some projects for this group.  We had weeding, shifting and inventory projects ready to go.  I was sure we had this under control and that I had thought of everything.  That night, we had 15 volunteers show up.  A good portion of them were engineers.  They pride themselves on efficiency and organization. You would think this would be a match made in nerd heaven.  It’s not.

We had a couple of projects going and we split the volunteers into groups. One group was shifting and inventorying the fiction and others were pulling things to weed in biography and youth nonfiction.  Still another group was doing inventory on nonfiction. Books were moved to workstations for inventory and then re-shelved, and the collection was shifted in the process.  We used empty boxes and tables when the carts were full.

Within minutes of everyone working, I had suggestions on proper utilization of shelf space, library layout, and the necessity of inventory and weeding projects.  One well-meaning man told me that leaving space at the end of a shelf was a waste of space.  I explained that nearly a third of the collection was in motion.  (I admit, I might have rounded up to illustrate my point. So sue me. )  Leaving space at the end makes it easier to keep the shelves in order.  Still not convinced this was efficient use of shelf space, the discussion continued for 15 more minutes.

Another asked if I had heard about RFID technology.  Libraries should look into that.  Did I know that would be such a cool application of the technology?  (I really wanted to say OMG! That is SO 2004!)

While debates on library efficiency went on, carts and workstations were being appropriated. There were people everywhere and books were starting to get mixed up.   Within about 30 minutes I was ready to start drinking.  After an hour, I was considering suicide.  I had no idea how I was going to put the library back together.

Here is where I went wrong:

I failed to consider the impact of fifteen people swarming our library with boxes and carts. We are a tiny library with no space for anything.  We have barely enough room for staff.  Fifteen additional people jockeying for a work station and book carts made for a huge traffic jam.

I failed to understand who I was leading.  Engineers are a unique breed.  They have their own way of doing things.  In their mind, you probably aren’t doing it right.  (I speak with authority, having been married to an auto engineer for more than 30 years.)

I failed to communicate the “why” of this project to the volunteers.  Before turning my volunteers loose, I needed to explain the general workflow of the library.  By saying, “here is a list of books to pull” or “adjust the shelves so they look like this” wasn’t enough information for them to grasp the bigger picture.  Taking a moment to discuss how the library functions, sans library jargon, would have helped them understand the overall goals for the project.

So here is your take away for leading volunteers:

  • Plan for all levels of volunteer intellect, maturity and motivation and have a list of “always need to be done” chores at the ready.
  • Know your audience.  Any volunteer should be vetted so you can better prepare.
  • Communicate the why and how of library workflow. Civilians don’t always see the big picture.
  • Be cheerful and show gratitude.

In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  The waters receded and things returned to normal. The work done that night did give us a big jump on some collection maintenance and I will probably take their help again, if offered.  Next time I will be ready.

Mary Kelly


Co-founder of awfullibrarybooks.net and library utility player. Lover of: library data, spreadsheets, collection quality, cats and cardigans. Follow me on twitter @librarymary40

3 responses to When Nerds Collide


    Great post! While I have never quite reached this point of hair-tearing-out with volunteers, experience has shown me how important it is to prepare myself and the volunteer. With some, a list of books to pull for weeding is enough. With others, a discussion of shelf layout and its effects on collection organization, circulation, etc. is necessary. However, I have often found that these people tend to be huge library advocates, especially after these in-depth discussions that I initially thought were a waste of time when I just wanted a cart of books shelved. I think that they understand better the work – physical and intellectual – that goes into operating the library and that we’re not just a building full of books.

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