Reflections on volunteering

Although I have never volunteered in a library, I credit volunteering with getting me where I am today.

I don’t remember volunteering much as a child, aside from the occasional project for Girl Scouts, but somehow I feel like I’ve always had the desire to help people. I really started pursuing volunteer opportunities in college, probably because it was an extracurricular activity that didn’t require a specific talent. It’s also a non-threatening way for even an introvert to meet people and get to know the community.

After college, I discovered a whole new passion for volunteering. Admittedly, this was part of a strategy to gain more experience and explore different opportunities that might help me decide what type of career to pursue. After undergrad, I moved to San Antonio to serve as a Senior Corps Member with a program called City Year. I led a team of other corps members, tutored children, coordinated an afterschool program, organized a science fair, painted murals, picked up trash, and a whole assortment of other projects. When I started considering graduate school, I came across the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, and decided that I should get a degree in nonprofit management. But being my practical self, I thought I should get a job in Indianapolis first in order to gain residency for in-state tuition. I ended up finding an AmeriCorps VISTA position that was too cool to pass up, so I served for a year with College Mentors for Kids doing special events and volunteer management. While the AmeriCorps living stipend cannot begin to compare to a salary, I came away from those two years much richer in experience. I learned that it was possible to make a career out of helping others, I picked up many transferrable skills, and I began to develop my professional network.

I’ve already written about how my professional and educational goals have changed since finding full-time employment, but it’s clear to me that these two volunteer experiences set me on the right path. I’m confident that I wouldn’t have found my current job or pursued my MLS without them. Who knows where I’d be now and what I’d be doing? Of course, now that I have a “real job,” it would be extremely difficult to go pack to unpaid work or a poverty-level stipend. While I would love to have more and different types of library experience, I haven’t figured out how to fit professional volunteering into my schedule. Perhaps if the right opportunity came along, I would take it. But for now, I’m happy with volunteering as an usher with a theater arts group, occasionally assisting with black tie fundraisers, and pitching in with other one-time projects as I’m able.

As to Thing 22‘s question of whether volunteering is good or bad for the library profession, I can see both sides like many of my fellow cpd23 bloggers. I have previously used volunteer opportunities to gain experience, and I can attest to value of this non-financial benefit. However, both of my experiences were with structured programs explicitly designed to supplement an organization’s activity and provide a specific service. I wasn’t taking the place of a paid staff member. Had that been the case, I might not have accepted those positions.

I do think it is unfortunate that so many libraries are so pressed for resources that they must replace paid professional positions with volunteers. While the volunteer experience is good for new professionals, what does it say about the field they are trying to enter? My employer has recently begun hosting AmeriCorps VISTA members, and my boss has asked me a couple times whether there’s potential for a VISTA project in the library. Each time, I have felt like I must say “no.” VISTA positions cannot replace regular staff duties, and it’s highly unlikely that a VISTA will have an MLS. So, while there are a few “new” projects we’d like to do, I can’t in good conscience offer them to a recent college grad, however capable he/she might be. If it doesn’t take an MLS to do these jobs, then why did I spend my money and free time pursuing the degree? Luckily, my boss has agreed with me so far. But not so luckily, we still don’t have the human resources needed to support even our small special library. Perhaps this is a conversation best “to be continued” when I get back around to Thing 16.

Whatever your thoughts on library staffing, don’t stop volunteering for causes you care about. It’s one of the most rewarding ways to gain valuable experience and give back to your community. We just need to choose our opportunities wisely!

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