Monday 3 October 2011

Thing 22: Volunteering to get experience

Have you considered working for free to gain experience?  For Thing 22 I reflect on my own voluntary work and the potential benefits volunteering can offer for career development.

My story

After graduating from library school I found myself with more time on my hands and less money in the bank and so began applying for academic librarian posts in earnest.  After several unsuccessful applications, I was therefore grateful when my employers offered to make my library assistant post full time.  Nevertheless, I respectfully declined their offer.

Although, my employers were very supportive of my career, the opportunities to gain the hands-on experience I needed to progress to a professional post were limited.  Consequently,  I found myself in what Bronagh McCrudden calls the ‘Experience Catch-22: the rut you can fall into because you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience because you can’t get a job.'  I therefore chose to continue working part time and use my new found leisure to gain professional experience through volunteering.

A colleague kindly used her contacts to help me find my first voluntary post which involved working two afternoons a week upgrading short catalogue records for another local university library.  Having looked at the job descriptions for academic librarian posts in my area they almost all required cataloguing experience.  I therefore seized the opportunity to prove that I could put what I had learned during my Masters course into practice and fill a crucial gap in my CV.  But this was just the beginning.

The benefits of volunteering

As well as providing an opportunity to gain practical work experience, volunteering can lead to other opportunities to enhance your CV and kick start your professional career.  Based on my experience, I believe it can enable you to:

Demonstrate transferable skills and experience
One of my colleagues from the library I was volunteering at invited me to join the planning group for a local Librarian TeachMeet.  This allowed me to give something back by drawing on my experience as a former training administrator.  Having demonstrated that I had transferable organisational and administrative skills I was subsequently encouraged to volunteer as secretary for the regional CILIP branch committee which in turn has enabled me to become more actively involved in the profession and raise my professional profile.

Increase your confidence
After graduating from library school and finding it hard to get a professional post I began to doubt my abilities.  Helping to organise the TeachMeet helped me to regain my confidence.  The motivation and enthusiasm of my fellow organisers also inspired me to give a presentation at the event – something I doubt I would have otherwise done.

Extend your professional network and broaden your knowledge of other sectors
Through my voluntary work I have met colleagues from a variety of different library and information services which has helped me to increase my knowledge and understanding of other sectors.  For instance, another of the TeachMeet organisers invited me to blog the discussions live at a symposium exploring patients’ access to and use of online health information.  Although I was not paid for my time, I learned how librarians are working with health professionals and technologists to improve the patient experience and gained an insight into an aspect of information work which was completely new to me.  I also hope to use this experience to help demonstrate ‘a breadth of professional knowledge and understanding of the wider professional context’ – a key assessment criterion for CILIP Chartership which I hope to start in the new year.

Get a foot in the door
Perhaps the biggest benefit of all is that volunteering has helped me to progress to my current role as an Assistant Librarian within the same university which gave me my first volunteering opportunity.  Having some insider knowledge of the university and having met several other librarians working there made it much easier to prepare my application and to settle into my new role when it proved successful.  My voluntary work also evidently made an impression on my employers as it was the first thing I was asked about at interview.

The potential downsides and further advice

I strongly believe that volunteering should be a mutually beneficial arrangement.  In exchange for their time and commitment, employers should provide volunteers with opportunities to gain valuable work experience and develop their skills.  Volunteers should also be recruited as a complement to, not a substitute for, paid and suitably qualified library staff.  Although this has been my experience, unfortunately this may not always be the case.

If you are considering undertaking voluntary work I therefore strongly recommend that you read Bronagh McCrudden’s prize-winning paper from last year's New Professionals Conference: ‘Would you work for free? Unpaid work in the information profession (and how to make it count)’.  This offers case studies of three volunteers’ positive, and not so positive, experiences and considers the ethics of using volunteers in libraries.  It also gives invaluable practical advice on how to make the most of working for free as well as sources of further reading.

Over to you…

Have you undertaken unpaid work to further your career?  What was your experience?  Is volunteering a good thing, or by working for free are we in danger of devaluing our profession?  Tell us what you think.


  1. Hi- the link to "Would you work for free?" links to a "page could not be found page" -maybe it has been moved or taken down?
    I'd very much like to read it if someone knows how to get to it again?
    Thanks, Becky

  2. Hi Becky,

    Thanks for pointing this out. I've not been able to track this down (so far), but it seems to have been published in the Autumn 2010 issue of the Career Development Journal Impact. That issue doesn't seem to be available online (see, but you might be able to track it down in a library or via inter-library loan.

    I'm going to get in touch with the CDG to ask about this, too, and will let you know what I hear.


  3. Hi Becky,
    I can't check it because it doesn't work on iPad but that issue should include Bronagh's article. Let us know how you get on!

    1. Thanks Niamh - that does work. I didn't see that the Issuu homepage doesn't show all the issues in one go (and as they're not listed chronologically, I daftly assumed that this issue was just missing). Poor librarian skills on my part!

  4. What rubbish - this is where
    I confess to copying and pasting the article into Google. hey, if it works...

    1. :D Love it. Sometimes the simple ways are the best!


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