Best Practices for Volunteers in Archives

Best Practices for Volunteers is a set of suggested guidelines for archives institutions and organizations about the use of volunteers. The best practices may also be of interest to individuals who are considering volunteer work in an archives institution or organization. Best Practices for Volunteers includes the following sections: Introduction, Recommendations, and Additional Resources. It is a companion to Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Education.

The document was drafted by a subgroup of the SAA Council based on the Council's discussions in September 2013 and January 2014 and in response to member feedback.  It was presented to the Council by email in March 2014, and after feedback from the Council, the draft was distributed to selected SAA component groups for initial comment between April 4-21, 2014. 

Approximately 50 comments were received on the first draft.  The majority of comments suggested other topics that might be addressed within the best practices document, including differentiating between larger institutions and those organizations which rely primarily on volunteers; developing more specific language in regards to volunteers not doing the work of paid staff; stating the difference between interns and volunteers; revising the language regarding voluntary work must be voluntary (and not coerced); fixing the links to various URLs; expanding the categories of volunteers; and developing additional resources. 

The drafting group considered all the comments received, coming to consensus on the following major revisions:

  1. Stating the applicability of these guidelines for larger institutions with paid staff as opposed to smaller institutions who rely on volunteers to function;
  2. Providing definitions of interns compared to volunteers;
  3. Being more specific about volunteers not permanently replacing paid staff;
  4. Adding language regarding voluntary work not being coerced; and 
  5. Removing examples of unacceptable volunteer examples, and focusing on the positive examples instead.

Several comments requested additional specific information on community service in archives for offenders, recommendations for advertising for volunteers, and aligning volunteer opportunities more clearly with lifelong learning. The drafting group chose to emphasize broad parameters applicable to a wide variety of institutional differences and to add additional resources for further information about implementing or managing a volunteer program.

A second draft was made available for public comment on SAA's web site between May 1-21, 2014.  Nine comments were received.  The comments were more positive, but some commenters suggested revisions to recommendations 3, 6, 7, and 9.  The drafting group addressed these by adding language about not replacing volunteers in the "normal course of business;" encouraging organizations to inform volunteers about professional ethics and standards, such as confidentiality or privacy; recommending that organizations carry liability insurance to cover volunteers only when feasible or that organizations consider other options for reducing risk; and replacing mention of grievance procedures with processes for resolving conflict.  One commenter suggested that we encourage use of retirees, but another suggested that using retirees was problematic; the drafting group decided that the guidelines could apply to retirees without explicit mention. One commenter suggested that we emphasize the amount of work required to manage volunteers, so a sentence was added to the first paragraph. Two commenters also suggested revisions to example 4, so the drafters revised the language to emphasize that volunteers should assist a professional archivist with processing.

The drafting subgroup then had SAA’s legal counsel review the document.  Based on this feedback, the examples were removed because, when read on their own, they could be construed as employment relationships. 

SAA Council Approval/Endorsement Date: 
August 2014. Next Review Date: August 2017.
BestPract-Volunteers.pdf243.02 KB

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Standards: What's New!

Announcement of the Working Group on a Schema for Functions 

Best Practices for Volunteers in Archives (PDF; August 2014)

Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Archival Education (PDF; February 2014)

Describing Archives: A Content Standard, Second Edition (DACS) (March 2015)

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