I worked as a voluntary library assistant at my local branch library in 2007, partly because I was unemployed and partly because I’d been turned down for a job at the big public library in Shrewsbury due to lack of experience. Granted this can be interpreted as anything from ‘the other candidates had more experience than me’ to ‘they don’t want you and are just being polite’, but I started volunteering to gain some experience. If nothing else it filled a time gap in my CV, so while I had yet to make up my mind regarding my chosen career path it seemed like a good idea.
Two years later when I next applied for a library job at Shrewsbury Health Library, I have no doubt in my mind that my voluntary experience made a difference to my application; I got the job. My boss potentially has other things to say about this, but my only other experience in a library was during my school years so whether it was just demonstrating a desire to work in the library sector or the experience itself I know that my voluntary work helped.
I think volunteering is an excellent way to gain experience as well as allowing people new to the profession to get to know other professionals, or even if it’s just to find out a bit more about working in a different sector to your own. I think the only problem comes when volunteers are being used to replace paid staff.
As a volunteer Brownie Guide Leader and Swimming Teacher I generally find volunteers to be less reliable – if something comes up (work commitments, childcare issues, just plain lazy) a voluntary commitment can be, and often is, dropped, where paid work cannot be (at least not as easily). Don’t get me wrong, I find that a core set of people turn up time and time again, and are extremely reliable, but a small number don’t show up and don’t have the courtesy to call and let you know either, and to me they give a bad name to the rest of us volunteers.
On the plus side I find that volunteering in these environments has given me a range of transferable skills. An obvious one is working with budgets and running an account sheet for the Brownies, which is not something I do in my current role, but is experience I will need when I take the next step. I am one of the senior Swimming Teachers at the club, which has given me supervisory experience when mentoring newly qualified volunteers and dealing with everybody’s information and allergy/medical info has made me an expert in data protection. Even better, I get to tell great stories at interviews when I explain how I helped organise a trip for 40+ Guides and Leaders to Switzerland to the World Guide Centre in 2008, or how the swimming club raised over £1000 for a local children’s charity at their last swimathon (yes I wore a Pirate costume, no there aren’t any pictures!)
For librarians I think volunteering is very useful – it shows that you are keen on working in this sector; it shows that you have identified a gap in your knowledge or experience and are working to fill that gap. I don’t think it devalues the sector as long as we don’t replace paid staff, but I think it highlights your value as an individual.