Best Practices for Volunteers in Archives



Best Practices for Volunteers is a set of suggested guidelines for archives institutions and organizations. Sections include Background; Recommendations; Examples of Acceptable Volunteer Arrangements; and Additional Resources. It is a companion to Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Education.


Some 65 million people volunteer each year in the United States.[1] Volunteers may provide unpaid, charitable assistance to nonprofit cultural organizations or public institutions with responsibilities for archives. Individuals who volunteer their time and expertise provide important services that help further an organization’s mission and ensure the survival of and access to our nation’s heritage. Volunteers can be essential to community-based archives that help ensure the diversity of our historical record. There are community-based historical organizations whose doors would close without the support of local volunteers. In turn, voluntary service provides volunteers with valuable experiences and personal satisfaction. Volunteer opportunities help increase community involvement in and support for an organization and the archival enterprise. There are also online opportunities for volunteers to assist in increasing access to the archival record.

In the past five years, SAA members have voiced increasing concerns about the possible misuse of volunteers, especially of volunteer graduate students or new archives professionals. In lean economic times, some institutions might be tempted to turn to skilled but unpaid volunteers to get work accomplished. These best practices recognize that there is an important role for volunteers in the preservation, use, and appreciation of our cultural heritage, but also caution institutions against using volunteers as substitutes for the knowledgeable, skilled, and fairly compensated professional archivists. Volunteers must enhance, not depreciate, the value of professional archival work. Similarly, in a competitive job market, new professionals and graduate students may seek volunteer work to gain additional professional experience. In these situations, it may be more appropriate to define an internship and clarify expectations about learning outcomes.

Volunteers are distinct from interns. An internship is an educational experience designed to benefit the intern and is under the mentorship of a professional. SAA has also provided Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Archival Education.[2] A volunteer offers service for a civic, charitable, community, religious, or humanitarian purpose without any promise or expectation of compensation or reward.

These guidelines are intended for institutions that employ archivists and also use volunteers. Some recommendations may not be applicable to smaller archives or historical societies that are sustained exclusively by volunteers.

[1] In the United States,about 64.5 million people (approximately 20% of the population) volunteered for an organization at least once between September 2011 and September 2012. For more information, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics report on “Volunteering in the United States in 2012” at

[2] “Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Archival Education,” Society of American Archivists (2014). Available at


SAA Council Approval/Endorsement Date: 
August 2014; Revised November 2018. Next Review Date: August 2021.
Best Practices for Volunteers in Archives_SAA_RevisedNov2018.pdf204.31 KB

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