When I decided to become a librarian, I worked full-time at my local council for a year and decided to try and get some library experience to support my graduate traineeship applications. I wrote to several libraries in the North East, ending up with a two-week work placement in the library of Beamish Museum, County Durham, and I was able to spend a few hours every other Saturday helping out at Chester-le-Street Library, also in Durham. Through these very different placements, I was able to gain experience cataloguing library and archival materials, conducting research for other members of staff in the museum, and assisting library users. Not only did these experiences confirm that librarianship was the right career path for me, I am certain that they assisted greatly when it came to applying for graduate traineeships, and helped me get the position at St John’s.
|Beamish Museum - Thanks to Calotype46 on Flickr for the image|
I was able to continue working full-time while undertaking these placements, as I used two weeks of annual leave to spend time at Beamish and my full-time job didn’t involve Saturday work. This was perfect as I certainly couldn’t afford not to work full-time. I suspect many people are in the same position. I did undertake further voluntary placements where time allowed: I spent a week at the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers in Newcastle immediately after my graduate traineeship finished, and some time during my MA assisting in the archives of Sheffield Cathedral.
Overall, I think that a certain amount of volunteering is a Good Thing. It proves that you are committed to the profession and gives you a chance to gain experience and develop skills you might not be able to otherwise. However I would hate to see librarianship turn into the preserve of the wealthy or those with the right connections, who can afford to work for months without pay. I agree with Jo that volunteering should be mutually beneficial, and a complement to paid staff rather than a substitute for them. This has been the case in my experience, but with the Government’s calls for volunteers to run libraries, it is likely to become an issue in the future. While volunteering is a great way for potential librarians to develop their experience, if the profession is devalued through the excessive use of volunteers to make up for a lack of paid staff, there won’t be any jobs for these potential librarians to work up to (of course there are many other issues with using volunteers in place of paid staff in libraries, but this is the most relevant to this Thing).
If anyone reading this is thinking about trying to volunteer in libraries to gain experience, I recommend writing to as many libraries as you can. I wrote to lots of libraries in my area; most didn’t reply, and a few replied thanking me for my interest but stating that volunteer opportunities were unfortunately not offered. Only two said yes. Write to the most high-up person you can find: when I was writing to councils I directed my requests to the Head of Libraries where possible. I used both emails and traditional letters depending on the contact details available. I preferred to write a letter, as I feel it creates a good impression when you’ve gone to the effort of typing, printing out and posting a letter. This is just me though – others may prefer email as it shows you are capable of using technology.
Recently I’ve been involved in volunteering of a different kind – I’ve joined the committee of the Career Development Group in London. Hopefully I will be able to develop my skills further and get to know other librarians and information professionals in the process.