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Creating an Inexpensive and Useful Docent Manual

The museum was small, and the budget even smaller, when I undertook to write my first docent manual almost twenty years ago. The docents I had recruited all volunteered to “help” in our small town’s first and only museum. Many of the volunteers, and most of the town, had never heard the term “docent” before. One fellow asked me it docents were “baby deer.” And, the local newspaper consistently edited my recruitment articles, adding the words “tour guides” in parentheses alter each reference to “docents.”

Through the intervening years, the lessons I learned while creating that first docent training manual translated well into larger venues with greater budgets. However, the best lesson tor museums, historic sites, zoos, botanical gardens, and other such institutions is this —the quality of a docent manual is not a function of its cost. A good docent manual doesn’t have to be expensive.


Good content is the core of a docent manual and costs only the time of the people preparing it. When the job is divided among various staff and volunteers, even that cost can become minimal.

The content of a docent manual might well be divided into information answering three basic questions:

What is the docent’s function within the context of the institution? What is the museum’s collection policy? In what ways can the docents help visitors discover the collection? In that first manual, I called these three sections “Getting Started,” “Finding Facts,” and “Telling the Story.”

The ”Getting Started” section included general information about our museum and the docents’ role in the institution. The first page stated the museum’s mission and included the following paragraphs that placed the docents within that mission:

“In 1915, Benjamin Ives Gilman of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, first used the term ‘docent’ to identity the specially trained volunteers of their newly created education division. ‘A museum performs its complete office as it is at once gardant, monstrant, and docent’ he wrote. He elaborated that as a museum preserves {gardant) and exhibits {monstrant), it must fulfill its duty of ‘sharpening the spiritual sight.’ It was this duty to which he gave the name docent.

“Docents for the … museum have volunteered to share their interest in history with our museum visitors, following the tradition of discovery learning by helping children make connections between the artifacts of the past and the reality they perceive today. We ‘sharpen their spiritual sight’ by allowing them to experience the past through physical contact with those objects that represent the past.”

A list of the staff, both paid and volunteer, followed this introduction. It became more than just a list when, during training, the director, the president of the board, a curator, an exhibit technician, the manager of the gift shop, and the president of the Museum Guild all welcomed the new docents and spoke briefly to explain their individual responsibilities within the museum. Their presentations were not made in a classroom, but within their work areas, helping the new docents learn their way around the physical space of the museum. as well as the many activities that took place there.

The 8-week training schedule was also included in this first section of the manual and followed the manual’s format. Classes were divided into three sections, two in the morning and one in the afternoon.

A break between the second and third sessions for a brown-bag lunch was held in the staff lunchroom. Letting the docents and staff lunch together helped give the volunteers a sense of “belonging” and helped paid staff begin to consider the docents part of the team.

Had we been even more elaborate, this section of the manual might have included a list of museum terms; information regarding record keeping for tax purposes; the obligations, benefits, and rewards of volunteering in our program; and the evaluation process used by the supervisor of their program. A list of names, addresses, telephone numbers, and (these days) e-mail addresses for all members of the docent team is also an important addition to this section to facilitate communication and to assist docents in securing substitutes if they are unable to fulfill a day of responsibility. All of this is easily accomplished if the appropriate paid staff and volunteers are asked to contribute each of the various pages for the section.

The second section of the manual, “Finding Facts,” and the third section, “Telling the Story,” were often used together in training. “Finding Facts” included a brief history of the area our museum’s collection was drawn from and attempted to interpret. Other pages in this section gave background information about each of the exhibit areas of the museum and selected articles from some of the exhibits. Curatorial staff, local historians, and hobbyists were asked to assist in creating the “Finding Facts” section, and classroom teachers and university professors were consulted in developing “Telling the Story.” General information on each topic was made more specific by visits from guest experts, curatorial staff, and the docents’ individual research projects. Brief information about questioning techniques, developmental stages of children, object analysis, and tour logistics in the third section was used in conjunction with the content information as docents were guided in developing their own tours.

For example, basic information about quilting came alive when local quilters shared their hobby, and docents were encouraged to take up needle and thread to “try their hand” at quilting. During a training session on questioning strategies, docents were encouraged to create questions from the manual’s information and their own experiences that would help visitors discover aspects of our permanent exhibit of quilts they might not discover on their own. One of our favorite questions asked children how a quilt was like a sandwich, and then followed up by asking them to offer reasons why quilts are make in three layers. (Unlike a sandwich, of course, a quilt’s three layers serve to trap air and provide a warmer covering than a single-layer blanket.)

The content of a docent manual, as that of all museum publications, should represent the best standards of the institution. That means the text should be easy to access, written in a clear style that avoids jargon and complex sentence structure. It also implies that careful editing and proofreading by more than one person will be employed to ensure a good product.

Format Although that first manual was created with very limited funds, most of the format was the same as those I used later, when creating more elaborate publications. Docent manuals should be enclosed in binders or notebooks, to which pages can be added or changed as needed. If guest speakers include handouts for their presentations, holes should be pre-punched so that the docents can easily add these pages to their individual manuals.

Each section of the manual should be divided or indexed in some way for ease of use. Different colors of paper may be used for pages, such as the schedule and directory, which will be referenced frequently. Pages in the first and third sections can be numbered, but the section on exhibit information may change too often for pagination to be practical.

Wide margins and/or extra pages are a good idea so that notes and ideas can be jotted down. The font chosen should be easy to read, and a one and one-half line space also increases the readability of manual text and makes space for brief notations.


My first manual was laboriously typed on an electric typewriter and reproduced with a copying machine whose idiosyncrasies were known only to the museum secretary. A couple of volunteers from the museum gift shop helped me to collate the books and fasten them into three-prong binders I’d bought at a back-to-school sale. We only had 10 docents, so it wasn’t a monumental task. Nevertheless, a computer would have (and did later) make the job a whole lot easier.

If funds are less limited, a beautiful product could be professionally printed and place in individual ringed binders that bear the name and logo of the museum. If funds are somewhat more limited, an underwriter might be found to pay for the manual, or, as in some museums, docents can defray at least part of the cost by “purchasing” their binders or their entire manuals. Actually, however, an effective manual does not need to cost very much, and a beautiful product will not make up for poor or inaccessible contents.

I’ve created better-looking manuals than that first one, but none that were any more useful and well used. Small museums, science centers, zoos, historic sites, and other such institutions shouldn’t let finances stand in the way of creating a book of information and enfranchisement for those people to whom they have given the responsibility of bring their collections to life.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Creating an Inexpensive and Useful Docent Manual,” The Docent Educator 11.1 (Autumn 2001): 16-17.


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