I volunteered in a charity shop one summer during my undergraduate degree which served to fill up some time in a useful way (I had a paid job too but that was evening bar work, so I had plenty of time to spare and no money to do anything interesting with it!). I enjoyed my time there but I didn’t gain a huge amount of new experience, and it only featured on my CV briefly. As far as I can remember the shop manager was paid but the rest of the staff were all volunteers. Library-wise, although I never did this myself I’m sure that relevant volunteering can be a useful way to get experience at the start of a career, especially if you’re not 100% sure if the job is for you.
I have a feeling that if I was retired and the option was volunteer or lose my local library I’d be there like a shot. However, given that I’ve got over 30 years to work until I can retire this is not a sensible or useful contribution to the debate. I might consider volunteering if I was on a career break and wanted to keep my hand in, but again I’m not sure how likely a situation that is – I guess I’ll have to wait and see! I also think that a bit of extra-curricular volunteering might be a good way to pick up useful extra skills or experience, or to contribute something to the community – I don’t do anything like this at the moment but I’m open to the idea.
It also allows organisations to get extra work done when they don’t have the resources to hire a permanent member of staff – in the library where I work we have had all sorts of interesting projects undertaken by people who wanted to get some experience, fill in a few months in the summer etc. and I believe that both sides have benefited from the arrangement. There is no likelihood of us employing someone to do these things, so no qualms about the volunteer replacing an otherwise-paid staff member. This is only ever a short-term temporary arrangement for us, but I have observed elsewhere that suitable, properly-recruited and well-managed volunteers can be a useful addition to the normal paid workforce. This last point is the key, really – volunteering is one thing (a means to an end, an additional resource, or whatever), but really shouldn’t be seen as a way to get something for nothing on a long-term basis. I see no professional harm to anyone from volunteering per se, but I don’t believe that replacing trained library staff with volunteers can be a sustainable solution.
I’ve just spotted this excellent post which discusses this in a much better and properly informed way, so I’d recommend you read it!
PS: Just before posting this I was reminded that my parents-in-law are just about to start volunteering at their local library, which I will be following with interest. I don’t know all the details yet, but by the sound of things there will be one professional librarian on hand and the volunteers seem to be replacing the library assistants.
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