Volunteering in LIS – not what you expect
03/03/2011 § 29 Comments
Please welcome another guest, Katie Westlake!
Katie is a first-year MLIS candidate in the University of Washington’s online degree program. Her future interests currently lie in library administration and/or international librarianship, but she’s staying open to the possibility of being seduced by other areas of study. She writes about everything from library science to dinosaurs in her blog, and has just rejoined the Twitterverse @katie_westlake.
Here’s her take on volunteering in LIS — Why it won’t be what you expect, and why you should do it anyway.
A couple months ago, I was volunteering at the welcome desk of my home city’s library. Everything was going fine until I was approached by a patron who spoke Korean and only Korean. After I spent about 5 or 6 minutes trying to talk to him and figure out what he was looking for, he finally managed to let me know he needed a translator (go figure). I consulted with a nearby circulation desk worker, and wound up setting him up on a conference call with a translation service the library subscribes to. She listened to his request, conveyed it to me, and we resolved his problem without much further difficulty! I was feeling pretty good about being able to help him, so when the librarian-in-charge came downstairs to check on things, I proudly told her what had just occurred, sat back, and waited for the praise to roll in. Instead, she looked at me like I’d just doused one of the stacks in whiskey and lit the thing on fire. I was then firmly told that requests like that should be sent up to the reference desk from now on, along with any other questions more complicated than “Where’s the restroom?”
While I hope my volunteer experience hasn’t been the norm, I still feel like there are a lot of us out there that truly want to help out the overworked librarians and staff of our library systems, but when we try, we’re batted down to the most basic “Hi! How are ya?” duties available. Library volunteers are a fantastic resource, particularly in cities with a lot of LIS students looking for some practical experience in the public library sphere. Volunteering is often the only option for students who (like me) are employed full time and just don’t have the time for a full-blown internship or directed fieldwork. I wonder, though, how often that resource is tapped. And if other people have had the same experience as me, why that is. The most likely explanation I can think of is that volunteer duties are restricted because of the endangered nature of many librarian and staff positions thanks to library budget cuts nationwide in the wake of the recession.
But there is hope! This great article by Norman Oder on LibraryJournal.com talks about how a volunteer corps in one North Carolina library system has enabled the system to open two of its branches to the public one extra day per week. And this stellar piece by Anthony Bernier serves as a call-to-arms for public library systems to take advantage of a willing and ever growing young adult volunteer group.
For LIS students who are in search of a more challenging volunteer opportunity, one that may actually give experience on the level of an internship or directed fieldwork, our options are steadily growing. Just the other day I received an email though one of my school’s listservs (something you should definitely monitor for great volunteer opportunities) about a volunteer opportunity with L-Net. L-Net is a virtual reference desk supported by the Oregon Libraries Network and available 24/7 to anyone for free. Another service that began as a graduate course at the University of Michigan, the Internet Public Library, has plenty of opportunities for library students to get involved with special and ongoing projects.
While volunteering at your local library might seem frustrating and limited for an LIS student, it’s still desperately needed. Volunteers can make or break a library system, and I’m really hoping to see more opportunities arise for us LIS students to really flex our muscles.