Monday, 1 October 2012

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

My story

Having worked as a library assistant for several years, I finally took the plunge and applied to library school.  This meant dropping to part time hours and using a hefty chunk of my savings to study.  After graduation,  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 grateful when my employers offered me my full time hours back.  Nevertheless, I respectfully declined their offer even though some of my friends and family thought I was mad.

Although, my employers were very supportive of my career, I'd pretty much exhausted the limited opportunities to gain the practical hands-on experience I needed to progress to a professional post.  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 took a bit of a financial gamble and chose to continue working part time and use my free time 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 many  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.  Reflecting on my own experience, I believe that it can afford the following benefits to repay you for giving your time for free:

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 to help organise the event.  Having demonstrated that I had transferable organisational and administrative skills I was later encouraged to take on the secretary role for the regional CILIP branch committee which has enabled me to become more actively involved in the wider 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 enthusiasm and support of my fellow organisers also inspired me to give a presentation at the event which is something I doubt I would otherwise have been brave enough to do, especially as the presentations were filmed and uploaded to the wesbite!

Develop and showcase your skills
As an inexperienced speaker, preparing the presentation for the TeachMeet took up a lot of my unpaid time and the prospect of standing up in front of fifty people, some of whom might be potential employers, was pretty terrifying.  However, knowing that teachng skills are increasingly in demand for academic librarian posts, I saw it as a chance to brush up on and showcase my presentation skills.  It also gave me something to point to in the application for my current post to prove that, despite having no previous teaching experience, I have the necessary skills to deliver an information skills session.  It has also given me the confidence to prepare my first session which I have to deliver next week (takes deep breath!).

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 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.  This experience will help me to demonstrate ‘a breadth of professional knowledge and understanding of the wider professional context’ which is a key assessment criterion for CILIP Chartership.

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

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 strongly recommend that you read Bronagh McCrudden’s prize-winning paper from the 2010 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.


McCrudden, Bronagh (2010).  'Would you work for free?: Unpaid work and how to make it count' in Impact: Journal of the Career Development Group, 13 (3), pp. 57-60 [Online].  Available at: (Accessed 30 September 2012).

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