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.”