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A docent is an educator, most often in the setting of a museum or institution. The term comes from the Latin docere, to teach. Docents can also work at universities, although the title has different meanings depending on which nation the university is located in. Docents often volunteer their expertise and labor, and are an important part of outreach programs for the public designed to educate, intrigue, and assist.
Within a university setting, a docent acts as a type of guest lecturer. He or she is generally not be on the regular staff of the university, and is often compensated per lecture offered. This type of docent usually has the same qualifications that a full time professor does. Different universities use docents slightly differently, and in universities with libraries and museums, it is pretty common to find a one acting in the capacity of guide, rather than lecturer.
Within the context of a museum, institution, or organization, a docent is an important part of the staff. Often, he or she volunteers because of a personal interest in the collections of the museum or the cause of the organization. He or she is given extensive training about the collection, the types of questions people ask, and how to deal with a variety of social situations. Once the training is over, the docent is usually given an official tag or uniform so that guests will be able to identify him or her.
Docents can be found in museums, parks, botanical gardens, zoos, and a variety of other institutions. When they are out among the public collections, they are usually available to provide guidance and answer questions. They can also leaded guided tours or other public outreach programs, such as animal feedings at a zoo, or touch tanks at an aquarium. By educating the public, the docent hopes to get people interested in the collections of the institution, perhaps encouraging future generations of researchers and collectors.
In some cases, a docent has access to museum collections in return for acting as a guide. Researchers may act as docents, which is exciting for the public, since they get to ask the researcher directly about the collection and the research being performed. Especially at natural history museums, this is often the case, and it can encourage members of the public to volunteer as well, after they have interacted with someone who is passionate about the research or work being done.