Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Case for Volunteering, by Anna Mickelsen

Beyond actually getting the degree, figuring out what you want to do with your MLS or MLIS can be a difficult question to answer. And, as Kristi Chadwick recently illustrated, the answer may change over time. Volunteering is a good way to “try before you buy” and find out what aspects of librarianship do (or don’t) appeal. I realize that some libraries have union rules that prevent the staff from taking on volunteers to do librarian-level work, or that exclude volunteers completely. However, a volunteer job can help you gain experience in libraries, no matter what kind of work you end up doing for the organization. In a time when getting an honest-to-goodness full-time library job can be very difficult, volunteering may also help build job experience and professional connections. If you leave yourself open to any kind of library and any kind of work, you’ll likely be able to find a volunteer opportunity.

When I first decided I wanted to pursue a career in librarianship, I had very little in the way of actual experience working in a library. In high school, I spent a chunk of time volunteering for the Salt Lake City Public Library (before it moved into its snazzy new digs), where I processed books and eavesdropped on the gossip in what I realize in hindsight must have been the Tech Services department. I got really good at wrangling those sticky covers smoothly on to paperback books. While I was pursuing my Master’s degree in English Literature, I also held a part-time job shelving books at the University of Wisconsin-Madison library.

Five years and several administrative jobs later, I decided to apply to library school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and the constraints of my job meant that I was taking a random variety of courses with very little direction. I went home for the summer and volunteered at the University of Utah library, putting dust jackets on books for the Preservation Department. I learned how to encapsulate maps and other documents and how to use book tape to carefully piece pages together before I did so. I read some fascinating articles from the 1930s and 1940s.

Then that fall, I got my first library job, as a reference librarian at a public library. The job was only part-time, and I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so took advantage of my free time and answered a call for volunteers at my local elementary school library. Again I found myself processing books—the average copyright date of the collection was somewhere in the 1970s, and the librarian had been purchasing widely at book sales and bookstores in order to add items that students might actually want to read. I also helped her weed the collection, and found myself with an ideal subject for study when it came time to do a collection development assignment in my Young Adult literature course.

As graduation drew near and I started to worry about getting a full-time job, I was happy that I had spent time working in school, public, and academic libraries—although I hadn’t gotten paid for most of it. Even if I never used the hands-on experience I’d acquired processing materials, I felt that I had inside information on how those libraries functioned, what kind of items they housed, and some of the different jobs that I could have if I was ever lucky enough to be hired by someone. When I did get hired, as a full-time reference librarian, I felt that I’d done the best I could to explore my options and felt confident that I was making the right choice.

This suggestion may seem laughable to those of us with full-time jobs, but working in a library does not exclude you from volunteering for a different organization.  Even if you feel like you have the job you want, you could, for example, offer your skills as a board member for your local public library. Consider it another form of professional development.

Anna Mickelsen is a reference librarian in Springfield, MA, where she answers patrons' questions, manages both fiction and nonfiction collections, and teaches computer classes. In her spare time, she blogs about collection development at Collection Reflection and shares her library experiences on Twitter (username: @helgagrace). This is her second guest post for this blog. Her previous piece is “Take a Hike.


  1. Volunteering has been a controversial subject in my MLS program. Not ALL volunteering, of course -- doing some work for local non-profits with small collections, or helping out at our county library is viewed as a good thing for all library students. But we have been urged by our faculty and the library community not to donate our time and skills to school libraries especially.

    In an economy where so many school librarians are fighting to keep their jobs, and so many districts are looking for any excuse to lay off professional school librarians and replace them with unskilled or free labor, the argument is that volunteering in school libraries undermines our colleagues' efforts and enables the districts to make a stronger case for a bad plan.

    And I think, honestly, that that argument is a fair one. It's tough, obviously, for people who know that they want to be school librarians -- it's near impossible to find a position without experience, and volunteering is a great way to get at least some work done in the field. But as the school librarians I've met have put it, "you'd never put a volunteer teacher in a classroom."

    I suppose I would just encourage anybody looking for a volunteer spot to consider whether the organization they'd be working for is one that genuinely needs the help and can't get it any other way, or whether they're exploiting the willingness of their volunteers to work as a replacement for hiring professional librarians.

  2. Thanks, Amy, for elaborating on some of the issues with volunteering (the case against it?), which I touched on but didn't address in depth in my post. I did try to volunteer at the BPL when I lived in Boston, before I got my degree, but I remember being shot down, perhaps because of the reasons you mention. As someone in a union job, I definitely chafe at the idea of volunteers being used to do librarian-level jobs, which is something that we're very careful about at my place of employment.

    The economy being what it is, and the school library situation being the most tenuous of all library employment right now, I think you raise some excellent points. When I went to volunteer in my town's school library, I considered whether my presence there would make the librarian seem superfluous--and that was definitely not the case. I wouldn't advocate anyone taking such a volunteer position, no matter how valuable the experience. However, I do think that any kind of work in a library (even if it's dusting the shelves) can be valuable and look good on a resume, simply because it's actually in a library.

    The volunteer issue also ties in to the question that libraries wrestle with when there are major budget cuts. Do we continue to perform at the same level of service, making our service population wonder if maybe the cuts were justified, or do we reduce what we have to offer in such a way as to make them notice that we need their support? Most of my employers seem to have chosen the former, and I'm afraid that eventually they may turn to volunteers in order to keep up the thin veneer of "we are a fully operating library even on our shoestring budget."

  3. We don't have volunteers at my library because we don't have anything for them to do. We have student workers and most things that need doing get done by them.