On Tuesday evening, I attended an event aimed at students and new professionals organised by SLA Europe. The focus was ‘career stories’, and there was a really interesting line up of speakers throughout the night. I enjoyed the event, and was impressed by everyone’s stories! One thing that jumped out at me and a couple others, though, was the emphasis many of the speakers placed on the importance of volunteering. This is something that always concerns me when it comes up, and after tweeting a bit about it this week, I wanted to get my thoughts down in a slightly longer form.
Before I go any further, though, I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way trying to take anything away from Tuesday’s speakers. I am certainly not suggesting that they should have volunteered less in their careers, or that their volunteering was anything but entirely positive for them! I do, however, have concerns about how we tend to talk about volunteering in librarianship, and how this links in with wider issues within the profession.
So here’s the elephant in the room: librarianship is not a diverse profession. We all know this, but what isn’t clear is how much meaningful action is happening to change anything about it. Here’s what won’t help improve diversity though: emphasising volunteering, which requires a huge amount of privilege. Volunteering costs, and I don’t think that is mentioned enough, if at all. It costs time, it costs energy, and in a lot of cases it costs money. Time spent volunteering is time not spent with your family, or with your hobbies, or just doing basic household work. Just take attending Tuesday’s event: I missed spending the evening with my husband before he left for a 3 day work trip; I wasn’t able to go to the gym; I bought my dinner out because I didn’t have a chance to make myself anything at home.
I don’t volunteer, but I still stay engaged with the profession when I’m not at work. I’m approaching the end of the taught content of my MA. I engage with other professionals on Twitter. I read blogs; I write this one (sometimes). I attend events where I can: I went to the CILIP Conference last year on a bursary. I visit other libraries when the opportunity arises. I spend a lot of time thinking about issues like the problem of volunteering in librarianship!
This emphasis on volunteering also brings up another myth of the profession: we should all be in this line of work for the love of it, which means it’s not work at all. Here’s the thing: I can be passionate about my profession but still think my time has value. I’ve been in conversations about unrealistic workloads where the response is that everyone should be so committed that unpaid overtime is practically a benefit, not a cost. How do we fight back against this line of thinking? How do we draw this line: yes, I will give a lot to the job, but I am not my job? I am a person first, and a librarian second.
With all this in mind, is it any wonder that hearing every speaker on Tuesday night mention and encourage volunteering made me uneasy? I would love to see more open discussions like the ones that have been happening on Twitter this week. I want new professionals to be encouraged to say no, and to look after their mental health. I want us all to be able to be honest about the times we’ve taken on too much, and encourage others to find where their line is before they cross it. I’d like to hear acknowledgement when people’s volunteering has come from a background of privilege, and honesty about what they’ve given up to fit it all in.
I don’t have any answers, but I’m hopeful that the discussion that’s been sparked this week will continue, and we start really thinking about the multitude of barriers that we are currently putting up from becoming a diverse profession.