Thing 22: Volunteering

Thing 22 asks “Have you undertaken unpaid work to further your career?”  and  “Is volunteering a good thing, or by working for free are we in danger of devaluing our profession?”  Volunteering in libraries is a really contentious issue, and reading some of the other blog posts on this Thing throws up a range of views. My own answers are “No, but I’m now in a position to volunteer (without having a career to further any more)” and “It depends on the volunteering”. I’ll explain by outlining what I see as three different kinds of voluntary work.

Job substitution

This most definitely is a bad thing and devalues the profession. Work previously done by paid library staff should not be done by volunteers and I abhor what is happening in so-called community libraries. Fortunately for me, some other bloggers have rehearsed the arguments for this view very eloquently, notably Gemma Bayliss’ Blog and Rebecca at It’s not about books or being quiet all the time so that I don’t have to. Thanks guys! However, I do have strong, personal feelings about the latest threat to libraries in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but I’m going to leave that for a separate post.

Volunteering to gain experience

This is actually the full title of the Thing and, on a small-scale, I find this acceptable. I don’t agree with the concept of “interns”, who are really just doing jobs for free, but for someone who has no job and can’t get one through lack of experience, I think volunteering shows initiative and it would encourage me to look favourably on any job application they made. Several bloggers have given good descriptions of how volunteering helped them – for example Kelly Quaye, the Physicist/Librarian and Theatregrad.

I’ve not done this myself, but I have taken on volunteers and done my best to give them varied experience. Most recently, in the last couple of years at Jordanhill, I had two at different times. One had a qualification, but had never worked in a library and was finding it difficult to get a job at any level. The other was a recently qualified teacher who could only get supply work and was considering a career change. In both cases, they came in one day a week for a few months, mostly working in Reader Services but with spells in other areas so that they could see all aspects of life in an academic library. They were always an extra and never used to plug staffing gaps – in fact, they took up staff time to train, but nobody seemed to mind because most people enjoyed sharing their knowledge and passing on their enthusiasm. One volunteer later applied for, and was offered, a weekend post: this is obviously the ideal way for library school students to add experience during their studies, but there are never enough jobs to go round. Volunteering can be the next best thing.

Community groups

In an ideal world, charities would not be needed – but we are never going to have an ideal world and I see nothing wrong in giving your time for organisations which would not exist without volunteers. Many people see this as putting something back into society, but it can also give valuable and varied experience. Joining the committee of a professional group or becoming a union rep are other ways of achieving the same thing. In my own case, I have now finished my current contract and need to plan what to do next and this is the sort of area in which I will be looking to volunteer. However, I need time to relax and reset my sleeping patterns after three months of getting up early for the Glasgow / Edinburgh commute and will leave any long-term plans till the New Year. In the meantime I –

  • have the next Glasgow Libraries Tweetup to organise.
  • have a full complement of chartership / revalidation candidates.
  • have a meeting with staff at Glasgow Women’s Library coming up to discuss joining them as a tour guide.
  • have volunteered to help Glasgow Libraries distribute goody bags for Book Week Scotland.
  • have agreed to edit Scottish Roundup for Sunday, 2nd December. That’s the end of Book Week so I’m aiming for a books / libraries theme and will be looking out for good blogs to include.

As I said in my last post, I now have the luxury of being able to pick and choose what I do, and these are all things that interest me and that I will enjoy. I feel very lucky.

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Anabel Marsh

I'm a proud Glaswegian who loves to go gallivanting both at home and abroad. Join me in my travels, both historic and current. Credit where credit's due: photography mostly by my more talented other half, John.

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