I admit I have no experience of actually volunteering to gain work experience. Possibly because I wasn’t feeling too driven once I’d gained my MSc in librarianship, I think I kind of sat out the wait in my library assistant’s job, and it didn’t feel like too long before I got my professional position as a cataloguer (there were quite a few applications filled in though). I did see other people who did the course either at the same time as me (distance learning) or after me (full time) who seemed to zoom past on the career trackway, which did make me feel slightly inadequate. However, I was dealing with a long term non-visible health problem which made me very tired/anaemic for many years – so maybe that is one of the reasons I wasn’t feeling very motivated (that has only just occurred to me, so its possible).
However, although I haven’t gone out of my way to gain volunteering experience, I think in a slightly less obvious way I have been doing so as I go along. My first permanent/full time position was as an acquisitions assistant, there were two of us doing the job, and when the cataloguer left and wasn’t replaced for about 9 months, someone had to fill in the gap. I guess we could have just not bothered ( I can think of some people who might not have taken that opportunity), but we had a go (after having training), gained in confidence, muddled along, and became (non-professional) cataloguers. Even once the Cataloguer role was filled, the person was employed as a Cataloguer/Systems Librarian and as we were going through a change in library management systems at the time their job never really encompassed actual cataloguing. So, not volunteering as such, but stepping up to fill a void and gaining valuable experience and skills as a result.
I like to think that if opportunities arise within my job, I am usually able to seriously consider them, (despite being really busy all the time). We can’t all do everything, but we might be able to do that little extra, that in the long run has given us experience to take further.
One of the events that we run within our annual staff development programme is a ‘Do Something Different Day’ (usually two a year), when staff get chance to have a go working in a different part of the library service (or even in other parts of Information Services, such as IT or Media Resources). A co-ordinator matches up willing libraries/departments with willing volunteers and for one day (or half a day if that is what your hours consist of) you get change to try out a different job. This can be simply working in a different library doing a similar job to your own, or trying out a completely different role for the day (A day with the couriers, or on the IT help desk, or in the Collection management dept). Its an opportunity to broaden skills, to see what differences there are in different libraries (for instance the difference between one of the medical or health care libraries who have a user-base of nurses, doctors, and clinical academics as well as med students – in comparison to an arts based library dealing primarily with undergraduate students). Sometimes these experiences have led to the participants applying for jobs that have come up in the library/department they went to – and that experience has helped to give them an edge over some other applicants. Its a brilliant scheme and we are very lucky to have it run. Next year we are hoping to have a special ‘Do Something Different Day’ and involve other libraries from within Cardiff in the scheme (in conjunction with CLIC) – giving people the opportunity to try out different sectors (eg, public vs academic). So that should be even more exciting.
I think volunteering can generally be a positive experience, but if does rather depend on where you are in your career and what you are looking for. One should be careful that there is no exploitation going on, and that you don’t just become that extra ‘free’ member of staff, so I would guess that careful guidelines probably need to be agreed on for participants. I think it probably can get you that foot in the door, or those extra skills you weren’t taught at library school; and in today’s tough economic climate every extra skill, and experience, you can gain will certainly help you out at job applications/interviews.