Friday, 7 October 2011

Thing 22 - Volunteering

Thing 22 - Volunteering

Skipping thing 21 for the moment; I'm not in the job market and not really expecting to be, and I don't interview at all well, so I'll do the easy things first!

I have some experience of volunteering, although this is not at all current. As I mentioned in an earlier post I did some volunteer work on my way to a permanent job. Actually, now I've thought about it I've remembered more!

I studied librarianship at undergraduate level, rather than doing a subject-based degree and then a post-grad conversion course, and in the interests of pursuing my chosen career quickly I went straight to university from school. Thus, I had no experience of actually working in a library, never having had the financial need to get a Saturday job, and not realising that actually a small amount of work experience could have been quite useful!

So, it was a compulsory part of the course that those of us who had not worked in a library prior to coming to university had to undertake a 6-week placement during each of the summer vacations. Of course, in the late 1970s only about 4% of the population went to university, and most of us went straight from school. There was only one person I can remember who had worked for a year before the course, and it must have helped (that and the fact that she was brilliant!) as she got a first.

Anyway, my first experience was spent with public libraries in North Yorks. This was a fantastic time and they really looked after me and ensured that I got a huge variety of public library experience. I worked on a busy issue desk, I got involved in the 9-9.30 daily shelf-tidying, I processed new books, I went on the mobile library, I spent a couple of days working in York music library, a couple of days in Harrogate reference library, time in a large branch library, time in a very small branch library and had a visit to the N Yorks HQ at Northallerton. This was a brilliant introduction to work in the public library sector; I probably didn't realise this at the time and I probably didn't thank enough the people who looked after me.

In my second summer vacation I spent 6 weeks working at what was then Gwent College of Higher Education, based at the Caerleon site. This was fabulous! This was my home town! This was where my mother had studied for her teaching qualification for three years! This was the place we had been to from school to have a couple of lessons in their brand-new science labs! This was the beautiful building on the hill that you could see from miles around! Oops, back to the point!

Again, I gained huge experience here, but the difference was that I hope I gave something tangible back, as I classified a poster, drawing and newspaper cuttings collection for their teaching practice collection, that perhaps they wouldn't otherwise have had staff time to do. As well as this, I spent a week at the Allt-yr-yn site where I was lucky enough to work with the inspirational lady I regarded as the perfect role model .

Further periods of volunteering came after I had graduated and before my first professional post. For a couple of months I worked in the local Tourist Information Office, which was also a focal point for the Citizen's Advice Bureau and the Volunteer Bureau. This involved answering the phone and various other clerical duties, and again, I was lucky enough to learn much about office work and practice, phone technique, communication skills etc. all of which were a vital part of my learning and prepared me for my first paid job. I hope the centre got something out of my period with them!

I was also involved in a local public library initiative: the town had expanded somewhat during the late 1970s early 80s and the public library wanted to assess whether opening a small branch library on the other side of town from the main library was a viable proposition. So, we had a couple of shelves of public library books sent over to the local community college and opened up to members of the public at certain times during the week. So I spent a couple of months happily sorting and issuing popular novels and other books. I don't remember recording the number of loans, or counting the number of people who used the service, or anything like that, but I now know that is how the need for a library service would have been justified. Not sure what the eventual outcome of this was as I secured a paid job in the middle of the trial, although I'm pretty sure we haven't got a second library in town and I'm sure I've seen the mobile heading off that way.

To sum up, all those years ago I thought that by volunteering I was gaining some great skills to help me progress in my career, and this it true. Now, looking back, I can see that the places I volunteered at weren't just welcoming me out of the goodness of their hearts, but that I also contributed in some small way to their work, either through being available in holiday time and filling in when the regular staff were on holiday, through having the time to undertake a project that might otherwise have taken longer to do, and filling a gap in provision at a time when it was needed. This is the value of volunteering; a mutual exchange of need - a need to learn new skills and a need to have someone do something that might otherwise not get done.

The idea of volunteering has now seem to come into vogue again (can't think why!). However, some of this worries me; I think it's fine to equip up-and-coming librarians with skills they will find useful either to secure a paid job, or to further their careers, but I'm not so sure about the idea of using volunteers to staff libraries in place of trained library staff. Ok, so thinking ahead a bit, I might want to go full circle and end my career by volunteering in my local public library, but I think this should be a bonus to the existing library staff, not a replacement for them.

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