Let Them In: Volunteers in Academic Libraries

In the fall of 2012 I was a third year history undergrad at the University of Guelph with a growing sense of angst about what my future career would be. Where would I find a job? What would the job be? Would I even be employable? This sense of uncertainty motivated me to consider my options and librarianship soon became an area of interest. I had never worked in a library setting so I had no idea what librarianship was all about. However, I knew I needed to find out quickly if this was the correct career path for me.

So, the following semester, I enrolled in a fourth year history course entitled “The Digital Humanities,” taught by Professor Andrew Ross. For the final assignment, each student was responsible for creating an online exhibit relating to any historical topic or area of interest. An option offered to students was to work alongside Special Collections Librarian Melissa MacAfee on the newly conceived Scottish Chapbooks Project.

This project involved digitizing early to mid-nineteenth century Scottish chapbooks and making them available online. Each student who participated was tasked with digitizing a section of the chapbook collection and creating an online exhibit which highlighted a certain aspect or recurrent theme within in the collection. I chose to focus on the theme of alcohol and its various interpretations within Scottish society.

After the course was over, I had a better sense of what librarianship was about but I still needed a deeper understanding if I was to pursue a career in the filed. Thankfully, Melissa agreed to allow me to stay on as a project volunteer over the next year.

From this continued involvement I took away many things:

  • gained a significant sense of what librarianship has to offer
  • found a sense of direction in my career aspirations
  • obtained valuable volunteer experience which would continue to benefit me in my application to Western and in future job applications
  • developed a better understanding of the collection as well as other special collections within the library
  • was exposed to the collaborative nature of librarianship, particularly in collection development
  • continued to digitize and catalogue chapbooks based on best practices taught to me by Melissa
  • began using OCR software

While my volunteer experience has been transformative and prompted me to enrol in Western’s MLIS program, several scholars have also expressed the value of volunteering more objectively.

What Experts Have Said

Michael Crumpton (2013) has argued that having a volunteer program in an academic library is a “win-win” for both student volunteers and employers. He argues that having a formal structure for recruiting volunteers is of the upmost importance. It benefits the library by having willing and trained volunteers and benefits the students by allowing them, as he says, “to participate in experiential learning through work actions and on the job training.“ To Crumpton, volunteers learn “employable skills within the profession for future utilization.” He states:

“Having a formal program, with structure is the key element offered in any workplace, and can not only provide a boast for addressing manpower needs but can also offer students a solid, tangible credential that can equate into experience and a broader perspective for their future needs.”

Similarly, Madhuri Takim (2011) has analyzed a library volunteerism program in Mumbai India with the purpose of finding “out the various outcomes of the volunteerism experience.” Takim found that “volunteers willingly helped to attract more volunteers, assisted in library exhibitions and events, started writing book reviews and also promised to develop modern promotional tools for the library such as blogs, web sites and brochures.” This is a rather exceptional case and to some, an undesirable infringement but it nevertheless encapsulates the potential worth of volunteers. This quote seems to encapsulate Takim’s findings:

“Overall, the image of the library was enhanced and all the stakeholders of the library were impressed by the positive developments. The experience showed that there is a vast potential in student volunteers. Channelising their enthusiasm and skills for the development and promotion of the library will benefit all- the students, the library, organization and the society.”

Taking a different approach, Marian Hoy (2011) studied a group of new hires in collecting institutions and asked them to reflect on their previous volunteer experience and how it applied to their current positions within a related occupation. She asked “How do internships and work experience, such as volunteering, give students a taste of the environment in which they hope to be employed? How do they provide pathways between educational institutions and the workplace?” Listed are a few excerpts from various interviews on the value of volunteering:

“…helped my confidence to apply for the position…”

“…helped me feel prepared and invigorated my interest in the profession…”

“…working as a volunteer is critical preparation for the workforce…”

“I do not think I could have got the job I am doing now without the internship…”

“It is all well and good to have theory but unless you have the practice you are useless to an employer…”

I hope that by reflecting on my own experience and the finings of several studies has helped to convince you of the value of volunteers within academic libraries. While many institutions are not open to such notions, I hope that the benefits that cultivating prospective librarians can bring to students, institutions and the profession as a whole are seriously considered.

Jeremy Dechert is a Master’s of Library and Information Science candidate at the University of Western Ontario. He is currently employed as a Student Assistant at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies Graduate Resource Centre. He hopes to pursue a career in academic librarianship. Twitter: @JeremyDechert Blog: manohmanlibrarian E-mail: jeremydechert [at] gmail.com.

[Editor’s Note: the following video is Jeremy presenting about this topic at the 2015 Lightning Strikes session at OLA SuperConference.]