Some of this post will apply to different sectors, but the majority will probably focus on public libraries because that’s where my experience of the issue of volunteering lies.
My stance on volunteering in any sector is roughly this:
+ Volunteering can be of benefit to you if you can’t (for whatever reason) get a paid job for the experience. Short placements in different sectors and departments can give you a really valuable insight into different aspects of work you might want to do in the future. Longer placements can help you demonstrate that you’re dedicated to something and help you develop skills over a longer period.
- Volunteering has the potential to be massively detrimental to the library and information profession if organisations use it to save money on paid, qualified and trained staff.
+ Volunteering can help make services better, through added bonus enthusiastic people around who want to help make things better.
- Volunteering can make things a million times worse if volunteers aren’t trained properly. If they give the wrong information or provide a poor service, it reflects on the service provider and has the potential to result in a decline in standards and users etc.
+ Volunteering can help services improve by providing a source of community engagement – people who use the service from a ‘lay’ perspective and have insight into community need can influence how the service is run. This can be a - too though, if some voices are heard more loudly than others.
- Volunteering to do a job that is technical/requires training and skills is essentially saying that either you don’t think it really does require those skills and therefore undermines the idea of professional standards, or that you’re willing to develop the required skills and will do whatever it takes to enhance your CV without payment, which ultimately shoots everyone in the foot because fewer and fewer paid posts will be available if there’s an army of desperate volunteers, so what’s the point in volunteering to enhance your CV in the first place?
CILIP’s take on volunteering is this:
“CILIP acknowledges the contribution that volunteers make to libraries, enriching the services they provide and helping to sustain their viability.
In order to optimise the value of that contribution it should form part of a professionally managed public library service that has at its core sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided.
Volunteers are not ‘free’ and need proper management, training and development. In many cases a volunteers’ co-ordinator should be appointed to ensure appropriate management and recognition of the value of volunteers”.
“Volunteers can be a valuable resource for a library. But like any resource, good management is key. As shown by the Independent Sector survey, volunteer time has value. Some quick tips gleaned from the resources provided below:
- clarify status with regard to such things as compensation for work-related injuries, insurance coverage when operating a library vehicle and related benefits
- establish procedures for reimbursing any work related expenses
- be sure not to supplant or displace established staff positions
- develop a recognition program
- have regular training for their work”
So, in theory, I’m not against volunteering, because it isn’t necessarily harmful. However, the political use of volunteers to dismantle services that the current government doesn’t believe that the services are valuable or should be publicly funded in the first place, when thousands of people are being made redundant (or taken off disability allowances etc.) and need paid employment to survive, makes me spit. Councils’ desperate use of volunteers to prop up services now that the government is taking a ton of money away from them makes me weep, especially when library users are made to feel like it’s the only option they have to keep their libraries open. The need for a clear, national set of standards about the use of volunteers in public libraries (and what we should expect from the public library service in general) is desperate.
My recommendation, if you’re considering volunteering in order to get experience, would be to check out the background situation first. Has there been a massive budget cut? Are people being made redundant? Is the role to keep the service going, or is it just to supplement an already successful service? Is there a clear volunteering strategy? Does the institution/organisation have a proper set of guidelines, training and support for volunteers? Do you think it’ll be detrimental to the profession in the long-term? I guess you can only try the best you can to volunteer in good conscience. This page on Public Libraries News is a very comprehensive source of information and analysis of the key issues.
My conscience wouldn’t allow me to volunteer in a library-related post at all, but I’m fortunate to have been able to get paid jobs to develop my skills and experience so it’s not been a situation I’ve had to weigh up and to an extent I think it’s a personal issue as well as a professional one. My volunteering efforts go towards initiatives like Green Streets, which as well as being a brilliant cause (and the source most of the contents of my wardrobe and kitchen cupboards…) has contributed to skills like time management, working in a team, managing volunteers, organising chaos into something a bit less chaotic (or at least categorised into the right piles!), and working with vulnerable people. There are lots of roles within organisations like this, so as well as the warm happy glow from knowing you’re definitely contributing to a good cause, there are some real opportunities to develop, both career-wise and otherwise. The skills you develop might not be library-related in the technical sense, but there are lots of skills that you need no matter what service you’re working in, and the more technical aspects are things you should receive training (and payment) for if you’re expected to do them.