Chapel Hill News

Orange County Public Library volunteers book it

Orange County Library volunteers Joe Knox, left, and his twin brother David Know, right, both 13, of HIllsborough, perform their shelf reading task time.
Orange County Library volunteers Joe Knox, left, and his twin brother David Know, right, both 13, of HIllsborough, perform their shelf reading task time.

They create displays in the teen section, they scour the sections to keep the shelves in order, and they hunt down missing books: Siblings Kat, David, and Joe Knox commit up to 10 hours each week to the Orange County Public Library’s expanded volunteer program.

Kat, 14, and her brothers, 13-year-old twins, are the program’s youngest members. Along with 15 other volunteers, they tend to the details of library’s upkeep with meticulous care – down to organizing chess pieces on a board.

“You never look at a library the same way again,” said David.

The expanded program kicked off this year, with 15 active volunteers and eight in training, at press time. The program seeks to strengthen connections between the library and the community – one of the goal’s of the library’s first-ever strategic plan, released in 2013.

“One of the ways we wanted to provide more outreach in the community was creating a new volunteer program,” said Nitya Fiorentino, assistant to the director.

Volunteer search for missing items, process returned books, do resume advising, provide Spanish translation, make sure the books are in order, update displays, pull books on hold, and clean DVDs.

The library saw 198,240 visitors in 2012-13, with 444,261 items in circulation, and an operational budget of $1.79 million. With library circulation up 64 percent from 2010, the volunteer program help lift some of the burden of daily maintenance off the staff, Fiorentino said.

The program helps the library make the most of the staff’s time and expertise, since the volunteers take on some of the time-consuming tasks on the librarians’ “wish list.”

“Because volunteers are doing them, the staff is able to do things like develop a collection that people really want,” Fiorentino said.

However, she emphasized, the volunteers’ work never replaces a paid position. For example, a staff librarian already coordinates children’s story time, so volunteers don’t take on the role.

After moving the library to Margaret Lane in 2010, staff focused on settling in to the new location before developing a volunteer program, Fiorentino explained. As the library prepared to expand the program, Fiorentino worked to ensure safety for everyone involved.

“We realized that because we are a hub for the community as far as a safe place to go and a safe place to send your children, we really had to take the volunteer program more seriously,” she said.

The volunteer selection process includes applications and interviews, and background checks for all adult applicants.

At the same time, the program also focuses on matching the skills and interests of volunteers with tasks.

“You always want volunteers to feel valued in what they’re doing,” Fiorentino said.

An ‘intertwined group’

In the case of the Knox family, the volunteer program simply offered the siblings a structured outlet for their enthusiasm for the library.

“If anything, we have to rein them back,” Fiorentino said.

Kat Knox began to volunteer a year before the program formally expanded, and all of the siblings had already joined the library’s Teen Advisory Board.

The siblings share a passion for reading, which David described as a “super low-tech instant transportation device.”

“I feel like we’re a really intertwined group with the library,” he said. “We were already practically here most of the time – it was a chance to make it more official.”

Joe explained that he found value even in the simple tasks – including stamping withdrawn items.

“It’s fun. You get this big stamp – it’s this big ‘ch-chunk’ stamp,” said Joe. “It gives the library more time to do the important things like cataloging books and going through and setting up the programs that we love so much.”

‘A wealth of people’

The volunteer program also gave Volunteer Coordinator Judy Truitt a chance to volunteer her skills, honed from years as director of the Orange-Person-Chatham Mental Health Center.

Now retired, Truitt volunteers her time to interview, train and coordinate other volunteers. Although she’s a long-time library patron, Truitt said volunteering has taught her even more about her community.

“There is such a wealth of people in our community,” she explained. “Young adults who are engaging in the community, to retired adults, like myself, who have enjoyed a lot of opportunities and want to give back. … It’s renewed my faith in the youth of today.”

The volunteer program is still seeking applicants – especially who can offer specific services, such as resume support, translation, and foreign language tutoring.

“We are interested in hearing everyone’s idea as far as what they can contribute to both the library and community,” said Fiorentino.