Thing 22: Volunteering

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”.

The ALA says something similar:

“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.

Thing 21: Promoting Yourself

This one’s a bit of a funny one for me because I’ve just been/am about to experience major change – going from working full-time in a university admin department and campaigning locally and nationally in my spare time, to studying for a PhD full-time and being the Vice President and then President of CILIP. The application processes are out of the way – I applied for a PhD place and funding months and months ago (I wrote about the process if anyone wants some insight!) and went through the manifesto-writing and application process for the VP&P role a couple of months ago (which you can read about here!), but there’s still a lot to be had from this Thing because I think an end-of-year reassessment can only be a good thing.

Part 1: Identifying your strengths; capitalising on your interests

Thing 21 recommends “[Making] sure that you keep up-to-date with yourself, and if you are unhappy in your current situation, acknowledge what has changed and take action.” I know I’m capable of doing this (as do people who’ve got a more personal insight into my life at the moment), and it’s a strength I have that I didn’t know about. I guess you never do until you’re in a situation where you need it.

As far as making a list of my own activities and interests goes…here goes! I don’t think any will be too surprising, but I think the value each of them weighs might be slightly different to what I might have expected.

Stuff I Like! 1920s-30s literature, Georgian poetry, Green stuff, activism, adventures, advocacy, beachcombing, bits of the Marvel Universe, cooking, cycling, democratic engagement, digital literacy, exploring, finding information, forests, helping people find stuff out, learning, looking after cats, magic realism, most things Whedon, music, online comics, papercutting, politics, public libraries (shock!), reading, rescuing Penguin paperbacks from charity shops, researching, screen printing, social media, social policy, standing up for things that matter, talking with people who share similar interests/goals (and different ones!), tea-drinking practices, the connections between literacy and freedoms, the relationships between nature and society, thrifting, transliteracy, travelling, typography, walking, wild birds, zombie films/tv shows.

The main thing I’ve noticed by doing this is realise what I’ve let slip and haven’t done nearly half enough of over the last year or so. Things that make me happy and keep me sane I’ve neglected a bit because of being so busy with other things. And there are things I’m interested in but haven’t done yet. I can pursue these interests and activities in my personal life to keep me on an even keel and help me lead my work life healthily, I think.

There are lots of interests in there that do play a significant role in my personal and work life, and some that I was interested in so I’ve made it my job to go and find out about. I’m really excited about it. The skills I need to do these things are skills like public speaking, constructing arguments about why things are important, using evidence to justify this, being able to articulate…stuff, writing articles for different audiences, being able to put people (journalists and the public) in touch with the information they want/need, planning, time management, the usual.

Part 2: Applying for a job

I don’t plan to be on applying for a job in the near future, but I do need to build up an accessible record of activities, experiences and skills because it’s increasingly important to keep track of this kind of thing. I do have lists of interviews, presentations and publications, which I update fairly regularly. I’ve recently set up an Academia account and have started to play about with Google Scholar Citations (though I’m finding it quite tricky) in preparation for PhD writing. I try to keep my CV up to date when I know I’m likely to need to send it to places – this isn’t just for jobs, but for bursaries and applications for other things, and if you’re considering Chartership – so it is very handy to be able to quickly send it off without too much effort updating it. I’ve been thinking about writing a CV for public consumption, like what Katie Fraser has, for example, but I’ve not thought through the pros/cons of this and what it might be useful for. I could put it on my LinkedIn profile too, but as I’ve mentioned before, I’m still not sure how LinkedIn could be of use to me.

Part 3: Interviews

I found the advice for this part of the Thing pretty spot on. I’ve recently been on the other side of the interview table and had the unfortunate experience of interviewing some truly dreadful applicants. Here’s some advice that I hope nobody needs to pay attention to!

  • Dress smart. It depends on the job you’re going for as to how smart, but seriously, if you turn up in trainers, dirty casual trousers and your shirt’s not buttoned up and tucked in, you’re not giving the impression that you actually give a stuff about the job you’ve applied for.
  • Make eye contact. Not in a creepy way, but it really doesn’t look good if you stare at the desk/your shoes/out the window or have your head buried behind your hands. (Yep, had all of those!)
  • Be enthusiastic. Not overbearingly so if you can help it, but I had a lot more fun interviewing the really chirpy person than the person who was pretty much sighing his way through every response, and again, it gives the impression that you actually care.
  • Don’t apologise for what you consider to be a lack of experience. Big up what you do know and what you have done. There’s a reason you’ve got as far as the interview process, and if you really weren’t experienced enough for the role, you’d have been dismissed as unsuitable already.
  • Let the interviewer finish the question before you start answering it! This should be a no-brainer, but wow, that was off-putting. It might be because of nerves, but it gave me the impression that he didn’t have enough respect/interest in me, the role and the questions to even bother listening. At one point the colleague I was on the panel with almost stopped the interview and asked the guy to calm down, because he was answering the questions so wrongly, whereas if he’d have just let me finish I would have given him some indication as to how I wanted him to answer the question.
  • Don’t bring your own drink into the interview. Or at least don’t slurp it!
  • Don’t be afraid of (a little bit of) silence. Take the time to think of an answer if you don’t know where you’re going to go with a response.
  • Think of a couple of questions to ask at the end of the interview, ones that are better than “how much is the pay?” and “when can I start?” This site makes some good points, even though it’s clearly not directly relevant to the LIS profession. Really though it’s about demonstrating that you’re engaged and proactive.

This is a great post about interviewing for a job in an academic library (in the US) by Jenica Rogers, which, like the rest of her blog, is absolutely spot on.