Tuesday, 20 November 2012


I wasn't sure how I was going to approach the issue of volunteering, as it seemed to me I had little experience of volunteering myself, and therefore no right to comment. But then I thought about it a bit, and changed my mind.

When I first left university I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It was not the most pleasant time I've had. I was back living with my parents, away from all my uni friends, without structure or purpose and working in a temp job. In fairness, the job went on a while and was full time, so I at least had a little money, but I was stuck. What could I do?

Volunteering was the thing that saved me. I decided I wanted to go into stage management, and to do that I would need  a PGDip. I naively applied and went along to the interview full of chat about my resilience, organisational ability and transferable skills, and with absolutely no experience to speak of. They sent me away and basically told me to come back when I'd done my homework! I got involved with my local Amateur Dramatic Society and as it was the run-up to Christmas they were working toward their Christmas Panto. It didn't take too many rehearsals for me to figure out that I could organise these people, and I was soon backstage making lists and telling people where to go. I also met some people through that society who knew a stage manager on the West End, and arranged to go backstage for a performance of Mamma Mia. That was truly fantastic. Finally I joined another Amateur Dramatic Society (which was much bigger and more professionally run than my local one!) and did as much lifting, carrying, set painting, prop making and basic running about for them as I could. I kept my eyes and ears open, I asked lots of questions and I learned tremendous amounts. I went back to the college where I wanted to do my PGDip armed with evidence and experience and I got my place on the course.

Stage managers marking-up a stage
A mark-up really shouldn't need this many people...
I know volunteering in libraries has a lot more attached to it in the way of stigma now than the above story of my life indicates, but I still think, having reflected on my past, that volunteering has a vital role to play in the acquisition of skills and experiences you would just never get otherwise. And it also helps you understand more about the role you're trying to take on, about what suits you and what you like and dislike in the job role. In fact, I have done some elements of voluntary library work - I attended several library visits and courses during my traineeship which were not compulsory, but through which I learned. I've visited my friends at their libraries, just to know what their experience is like and how it compares to mine, and I've taken training opportunities that have cost me my own money in order to meet other librarians and network with them.

This is not the same as the idea of volunteer-run libraries, or of giving up your time and effort for no money at all to build a working systems for someone else, or conversely, wanting to do a little bit in a field without wanting to understand the whole and move on to a greater objective. Volunteering in this context is not standing behind a counter checking out books to people for a morning before going home for lunch over Murder She Wrote. But it is working hard on something because you know you are gaining the experience and knowledge you need to further your career, to take you on to the next step, to help you reach your goal. I do not think volunteers can ever replace qualified librarians. However, for a person who has volunteered in a library, worked hard because of a passion for what libraries can do and achieve, and who then wants to work in a paid  professional role in libraries without an MSc? Well - if they've got the skills, then absolutely yes! Learning through doing is just as valuable as the letters on a piece of paper you get through studying. And yes, volunteers of this calibre should not remain volunteers for long. They deserve to be paid.

1 comment:

  1. Doing a Google image search for "stage management," I was surprised to find my photo showing up as the second example and on your blog. Yes, taping out a ground plan normally doesn't take that many people, but that was my stage management class from 2006 at work. Learning doesn't always happen in the classroom. ;)