On volunteering, diversity, and honesty

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.



2 thoughts on “On volunteering, diversity, and honesty”

  1. Hello! Really glad you enjoyed the talks and I’m grateful for the feedback. I think the emphasis obviously came out wrongly – we value all our members and recognise that not everyone has time to take an active part. I don’t know if you saw my tweets – for me, volunteering with professional associations has been a source of great support during rough times in my career. It’s also helped me believe I could do things when my employer did not. But it’s not for everyone (and I have had a far from typical career path). Anyway, we appreciate all the time people can spare for us, and for their fellow professionals, including posts like this one.


    1. This is a bit different in terms of looking at volunteering while in an LIS program, but maybe someone could find it useful. For me, my volunteering comes out of privilege. Absolutely. When I started my program (at a private school) I was living with my mom on subsidized rent, I paid for a portion of my groceries, a small cell phone bill, my car payment and insurance–but nothing for water, heating, gas, trash, laundry, etc., or even part of the HOA bill. I had worked in special collections for a year before I started–and got paid to do it! I started by interning with my local historical society one day per week, but found that it didn’t work with my work schedule (where I actually got paid). Rather than continuing to volunteer for organizations/institutions, I decided to start my own projects–once more, this is a complete privilege. I still have familial support (thought not currently monetarily), and know that I will never have to starve or be homeless if I can’t pay for groceries or rent. I am privileged to have my wonderful job (which pays very well), to work with fantastic people (who mentor me), and to have found a wealth of support for my own endeavors through many people who give their time to volunteer with me (it feels weird to post this here and know people consciously give time to my projects, but I do my best not to be exploitative and ensure they are in some way stakeholders in the projects). I am also white, so tons of privilege there–for example I’ve never been asked whether I belong in my workplace, whether I’m capable of doing my job, if I would be a good volunteer, or if I belong at the conferences I attend. My projects are also taken seriously. In general very few people volunteer in this way–but rather than give my time to an organization (and devalue our profession through the idea that free work is as viable a source of labor than paid work, and passion means I should work for free), I wanted to see a product that is created in service to others, but that *I* can also use (1) (2). I should note–I don’t get paid and use (a lot of) my own resources to get my projects up and running and to sustain them. In my experience it is more rewarding than volunteering for any library or archive. It also means I give up many weekends and countless hours creating materials, supervising and teaching volunteers, creating infrastructure, doing conference calls, figuring out new technology, etc. But honestly there’s still tons of privilege involved not matter how much I do outside of work and school. My context is privilege. I live privilege.

      (1)–I should note I’m a theorist (privilege) and these projects, while yielding high materials results, are experimental–I would not classify myself as an LIS practitioner and am going in to another masters degree (tuition waived and a total privilege).
      (2)–I am aware plenty of people can use what they get out of volunteering–I largely mean that the projects themselves are considered mine, and are autonomous of any organization (even if I collaborate with them).


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