Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Thing 22: Volunteering to get experience

My first experience with volunteering was at primary school, aged 10. It was my job to go to the canteen on a Friday morning. Write out the menu options for the next week very neatly on slips of paper and hand deliver it to all the teachers in the school. On Friday afternoon, I went back round and collected them again, made sure the teachers had ticked an option and then delivered them back to the canteen. For my efforts I was rewarded with a bowl of jelly and custard, the chance to get out of class for a few moments and the crown of being the school 'suckup'. Ah, those were the days. But I liked the responsibility that went with it and I took pride in my work. I'll admit now, I'm still a 'suckup'. I'm the the donkey sticking my hand up in the air 'pick me, pick me', so have plenty of experience with volunteering.

For me, there are several different kinds of volunteering, most of which I have done.

  • for an organisation with charitable aims
  • within my own workplace - additional roles, responsibilities and plain old 'sticking your hand up'.
  • where the role potentially takes the place of a paid member of staff.
  • to provide support to existing staff within an organisation.
  • for committee work within a professional organisation

Volunteering is a tricky subject. I'm attempting not to visualise a future where a graduate, interested in a career in library and information science may have to consider the ethical dilemma of volunteering in their local community-run library in order to get experience.

Whilst volunteering in libraries is nothing new, the role we of volunteers in libraries has started to change. Research completed by the Institute of Volunteering Research back in 2002 suggested that 64% of libraries used volunteers as it 'allowed them to do things they could not normally do'. Most of the tasks seemed to be around outreach work, visiting people in their own homes. On average each library used 50 hours of volunteers time per week. Given that the research is almost 10 years out of date, I wonder how this pattern of volunteer use might have changed in statutory, council-run libraries and whether the attitude to using volunteers has evolved in the current political-and financial-climate?

I count myself lucky that I've been given lots of opportunities to get involved in aspects of knowledge, library and information management through volunteer positions. I've mostly worked on a part-time basis for the past 10 years. In some instances, it was due to a lack of choice - a part-time job was the only one available. In other situations, it's been a considered choice.  It allowed me to study, it allowed me to spend more time as a mum and it allowed me to volunteer outside of my own workplace.

My first volunteer position was in a chaplaincy library, attached to a university. Although small, it was well used but it was accessed through an old-school card catalogue. The University library obviously had a sophisticated library management system, but there was a reluctance to add the theology collection to the system. The needs of the university students and the needs of those using the chaplaincy were different and there was a strong feeling to keep them separated. A call went out through the university system. Was there someone, perhaps working towards a library and information science qualification that wanted experience of managing a small project to create a self-service library catalogue? I stuck my hand up and got involved.

The role gave me a little experience at finding other people to work with on the project, sent me on a short detour down the into the world of open source library management systems, exposed me to the joy of creating a relational database using Microsoft Access, and the satisfaction of cataloguing a book on a system that I had created. I discovered the Freepint Bar, and the willingness of other library and information professionals to get involved and share their expertise in using and creating home-grown catalogue systems. It also enabled me to link with other library assistants across the university and make connections that I might not have made otherwise. It was a positive experience.

The next role wasn't quite so positive. It was more than a little challenging. I spotted an advert in a local 'volunteer job shop' for an Information Officer for a small charity giving advice to gay women wanting to become parents. The charity was struggling. They wanted someone who could analyse the enquiries that came in to identify who the customers were, where they were accessing the service from and what they were asking for. That seemed simple enough. What the role turned into was something much bigger that probably required the skills and expertise of a paid professional rather than an over-enthusiastic library school student. A realisation that the charity needed to make a high-impact change in order to survive meant that I was involved in the creation of a marketing strategy, which outlined a wider customer base, and involved in changing the charging-model for the services that were offered. Which then lead to updating training packages to help adviser's deal with different kinds of queries. And answering questions from adviser's feeling threatened by the change. There were many times where I felt I'd bitten off more than I could chew. A lot of the information gained from customer feedback and analysis of customer use of the service were all unwelcome messages and I felt like the bad guy. I'm usually a 'yes person'. I learned from this experience to say 'yes if' or even 'no, I can't'. I was happy to help. I wasn't happy to take responsibility for rescuing a badly managed charity. But I learned a lot, about influencing, negotiation and the art of persuasion.

Benefits I've gained from volunteering

* Chance to network and connect with people outside of my normal working relationships
* Gained new skills and experiences
* Keeping skills fresh and up to date
* Exploration of a different aspect of library and information science
* Increase knowledge of other library sectors
* Discovery of new interests

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