Volunteering in LIS – not what you expect

Please welcome another guest, Katie Westlake!

Katie is a first-year MLIS candidate in the University of Washington’s online degree program. Her future interests currently lie in library administration and/or international librarianship, but she’s staying open to the possibility of being seduced by other areas of study. She writes about everything from library science to dinosaurs in her blog, and has just rejoined the Twitterverse @katie_westlake.

Here’s her take on volunteering in LIS — Why it won’t be what you expect, and why you should do it anyway.


A couple months ago, I was volunteering at the welcome desk of my home city’s library. Everything was going fine until I was approached by a patron who spoke Korean and only Korean. After I spent about 5 or 6 minutes trying to talk to him and figure out what he was looking for, he finally managed to let me know he needed a translator (go figure). I consulted with a nearby circulation desk worker, and wound up setting him up on a conference call with a translation service the library subscribes to. She listened to his request, conveyed it to me, and we resolved his problem without much further difficulty! I was feeling pretty good about being able to help him, so when the librarian-in-charge came downstairs to check on things, I proudly told her what had just occurred, sat back, and waited for the praise to roll in. Instead, she looked at me like I’d just doused one of the stacks in whiskey and lit the thing on fire. I was then firmly told that requests like that should be sent up to the reference desk from now on, along with any other questions more complicated than “Where’s the restroom?”

While I hope my volunteer experience hasn’t been the norm, I still feel like there are a lot of us out there that truly want to help out the overworked librarians and staff of our library systems, but when we try, we’re batted down to the most basic “Hi! How are ya?” duties available. Library volunteers are a fantastic resource, particularly in cities with a lot of LIS students looking for some practical experience in the public library sphere. Volunteering is often the only option for students who (like me) are employed full time and just don’t have the time for a full-blown internship or directed fieldwork. I wonder, though, how often that resource is tapped. And if other people have had the same experience as me, why that is. The most likely explanation I can think of is that volunteer duties are restricted because of the endangered nature of many librarian and staff positions thanks to library budget cuts nationwide in the wake of the recession.

But there is hope! This great article by Norman Oder on LibraryJournal.com talks about how a volunteer corps in one North Carolina library system has enabled the system to open two of its branches to the public one extra day per week. And this stellar piece by Anthony Bernier serves as a call-to-arms for public library systems to take advantage of a willing and ever growing young adult volunteer group.

For LIS students who are in search of a more challenging volunteer opportunity, one that may actually give experience on the level of an internship or directed fieldwork, our options are steadily growing. Just the other day I received an email though one of my school’s listservs (something you should definitely monitor for great volunteer opportunities) about a volunteer opportunity with L-Net. L-Net is a virtual reference desk supported by the Oregon Libraries Network and available 24/7 to anyone for free. Another service that began as a graduate course at the University of Michigan, the Internet Public Library, has plenty of opportunities for library students to get involved with special and ongoing projects.

While volunteering at your local library might seem frustrating and limited for an LIS student, it’s still desperately needed. Volunteers can make or break a library system, and I’m really hoping to see more opportunities arise for us LIS students to really flex our muscles.

30 replies

  1. Well, I think it’s awesome that you were able to help the patron! Libraries can be so difficult to navigate, even for English-speakers, and patrons hate being directed from one staff member to another. How were you supposed to refer him to Reference with that communication barrier, anyway?


  2. I volunteered at my public library in high school as a shelver, which in a way influenced my decisions to go into library science. It all started with volunteering. Plus, I think the reason why I got my current job at a library now was because of the experience I got at a different volunteer position.


  3. Great post! I volunteered at the small public library in my home town the summer before I started my MLIS program. It was wonderful. They are a library that is open 35 hours a week but only have one paid FT director and one paid PT assistant. The rest of the work is done by volunteers. It’s incredible. But they were very excited to have someone who was going for the MLIS and they gave me lots of more “advanced” tasks like copy cataloging and re-doing some of the labeling system along with programming and marketing. It was a really great opportunity to see all different aspects of working in a public library and, happily, confirmed my desire to work in libraries.

    In my Mgmt of Public Libraries class last summer we talked a lot about volunteers and making the most of them- especially if they are MLIS students. A woman in my class who had worked in public libraries for years talked about how many of her co-workers found volunteers to be a drain at times but she was counter-acting that opinion by finding useful and rewarding tasks for the volunteers. She said that, while that was a time consuming operation, the benefits for everyone far out-weighed the costs.


  4. I asked (and was granted!) to volunteer at the reference desk of a community college library for a year in library school. I don’t know if it’s because it was a community college or because the director is just awesome, but I was able–and encouraged!–to answer reference questions and even teach the occasional BI class. There was another reference librarian on duty in case something was over my head, but it was a really supportive environment to learn in and since I asked at the outset to work at the reference desk, it was pretty much a given that I’d get real librarian experience.

    Virtual reference opportunities: ChaCha.com (which pays!), Ask Now Texas (if you attend a Texas library school), and My Info Quest. I joined all of these while still a student.


  5. Great advice! Volunteer experience can definitely benefit you in numerous ways. I landed my current job in online content primarily because of a volunteer position I was in at the time of my interview. I currently volunteer for a local archive, and it has really benefited me in figuring out what I’m interested for when I go to library school, as well as networking, experience, etc., etc.

    Couldn’t recommend it more.


  6. I’m really glad to hear about all the positive volunteer experiences you guys have had! Keep sending in those stories – it’s really encouraging to see how valuable volunteering can be. 🙂


  7. I had a similar experience in my first library job as a page in a public library. I was allowed to answer directional questions only, which is very frustrating if you have the know-how to answer more complex questions and really want the experience.

    In the Graduate Assistantship I had during school I started supervising student employees and volunteers, so I understand that sometimes volunteers are only free as in kittens, not as in beer. But in my experience, in the case of LIS students its worth the time to work with people who are enthusiastic about coming in and learning something by volunteering. I hope more libraries that by giving LIS student volunteers a little more responsibility, both of them will benefit.


  8. I’m sorry you had that experience. It isn’t unusual for some libraries to have silos. Only an experienced librarian can answer that question, when in reality, 95% of the questions asked in a library could be answered by a paraprofessional. It’s unfortunate you weren’t praised and encouraged at the library, it’s also unfortunate that your experience may be more typical than unusual. I am hoping that changes over time, you may be part of making that happen.


  9. Likewise, I’m disappointed that you had this experience. I don’t understand this need for professional librarians to claim questions of a specific nature. If a person at the front desk can’t handle it, then just refer it to the reference librarian on call. If they can, as you well demonstrated, then go for it.


  10. Thanks for sharing this experience, Katie! Thanks also for mentioning the LNET opportunity for Oregon LS students. I do some LNET shifts at my job and think it’d be a great way for LS students to get real reference experience.

    I also want to share my perspective as an curmudgeony old librarian: it can take as much energy to manage volunteers as you get back from them. Recently I was all fired up to get more LS students volunteering at my library, and a senior colleague told me that she only agrees to mentor/sponsor field experiences for one student a year, or sometimes even less often, despite her passion for mentoring–because it takes so much work from her. I have since learned she’s absolutely correct. I had a very competent LS student working for me recently on an a great project that really needed to get done. But I’m not sure I couldn’t have accomplished the project myself in the amount of time I spent working with him on it. LS students can be so needy (that probably smarts, sorry), especially when they aren’t interacting with librarians otherwise–they ask so many questions, good questions that I want to answer, but I just don’t always have the time to fully mentor them as the only librarian they’ll interact with before they graduate. This student had no idea how to create an academic library-style resume or cover letter; he was missing so much of what I consider basic stuff that students should get through school or student associations at school. I can’t be everything to a volunteer.

    The project was great for him, and he did a pretty good job on it, but took a lot of energy from me. I realized I need to think of LS students who volunteer not so much as resources as they are service projects.

    You are right that having more volunteers might be easier–if you’re already training one, you can train two in not much more time. But without a formal volunteer program, this is hard to mentor a volunteer when I’m also trying to buy books, answer questions, and, oh yeah, write some articles so I can get tenure.

    In regards to your specific experience: I suspect you are a victim of your competence. Not everyone who staffs that desk is probably capable of answering the questions as you did, and libraries sometimes take steps to make sure patrons don’t expect too much from the wrong place. We see this all the time at the reference desk. One librarian helps someone out and lets them use the reference terminal to check their email or print a paper. The next week, that same patron asks for the same thing, but the desk is too busy. Then you have a really unhappy patron–and a librarian who is pissed at her colleague for having made the exception in the first place.

    It’s great to help people out, but it’s also helpful for patrons to learn where to go with their questions. If the Korean speaker comes back to the welcome desk tomorrow and expects the next volunteer to do the same, he may up disappointed at best and very confused at worst.

    The senior librarian did not manage you well. She certainly should have praised your conscientiousness–and then gently explained why perhaps it’s best not to get into in-depth transactions at that particular depth, no matter your particular skill set.

    I hope this doesn’t come across as too scolding. I just think it can be helpful to understand that for as much volunteers give us, they require a great amount of effort and coordination.

    (Also, and I almost hesitate to say this, but here I go: there’s a really good chance that the senior librarian is going to see this blog (it’s a very small librarian world), which you’re writing under your real name with your photo. Will you ever need her to be your reference?)


  11. Katie, I’m sorry that this librarian chewed you out. They really could have handled it in the spirit of your intent rather than as affront to “the way things are done”. There’s really no need to belittle anyone who is working to help someone else in the library.

    Don’t take this as a justification for their actions, but as a way to see it from their perspective. The welcome desk has an important role. You are the first library representative to meet and greet the public. This is crucial because recognizing someone as they come in makes them feel acknowledged and not anonymous. (This is why Walmart has greeters; plus, it acts as a theft deterrent when you take away that anonymous aspect.) This is pretty basic advocacy and customer service, even if it doesn’t feel that way. You create a human connection in a world that feels like it has moved away from it.

    The welcome desk is also a triage. It’s where people can ask their initial questions and you are in the role of assessing them. Directional questions are handled easily. Anything that takes longer should be referred back to the reference desk. The reason is twofold: first, statistics on use are king for the reference desk. It goes to showing use both to the library and to the budget overseers. It doesn’t seem fair to you, no, but the reference desk needs those statistics. Plus, they have the time to handle it (which goes into my second point). Second, it allows you to be ready for the next person through the door. You triage people as they come through. It’s important for the reasons mentioned above.

    To me, I like this because you showed initiative, problem solving skills, and customer service know-how. It means that you’ll rock the reference desk pretty hard when you get to it. Those are qualities that you want in a reference staff. While your story had a relatively unhappy ending, I think it shows a lot more about you than the library you are helping.


  12. What do you all think? I think Andy and “grumpy old librarian” have both made some great points. I’ll probably respond in more detail later (at work at the moment), but I’d love to get some more opinions from the other side of the desk regarding volunteering.

    And in response to your last point, GOL, I certainly didn’t mean to come off as disrespectful to the librarian in question, and if it sounded that way, I apologize. But I’d still rather write truthfully about my LIS experiences instead of feeling compelled to censor out anything for fear of losing a potential leg-up. I feel like that’s what Hack Library School is all about, after all. 🙂


    • I think if you didn’t want to work with petty, bureaucratic individuals you should have found another line of work. How bad it is depends on the workplace.


    • Katie, you have made me less grumpy with your reply. You didn’t come off as disrespectful. I was just thinking that you probably would have written it differently if you knew she would read it–but there’s a good chance she might.

      I’ve seen lots of LS students and new librarians opine openly on blogs and listservs and not quite realize how small of a world we work in. This stuff can influence how people see you. I’ve been on search committees where what someone said on a blog has come up. It’s easy to say, “Well, I wouldn’t want to work someplace where they judged me like that,” but when we’re looking for a new colleague, we’re going to use all the information we have. “She complained about her supervisor on her blog! What if she complains about me when I’m her supervisor?” Etc.

      As far as self-censorship: well, we don’t always say just what we think at work, right? A professional blog should be an extension of our work selves.

      I’ve way overstated this given your comment. Truly I am trying to be helpful and my comment was only meant to be a gentle prod, I promise. Sometimes we librarians have the problem of being too nice and conflict avoidant, which is a problem.


  13. I would imagine that GOL’s problem is not a unique one. Correct me if I’m wrong – but it sounds like a lot of the more established librarians are suffering from the part of their personality that makes them great – the passion to inform.

    There’s a difference between a mentor and a teacher. A mentor being more of an occasional guide where as a teacher is a constant resource. Saying “do some research on your own” is probably counter-intuitive, especially when, like she mentions, their question is something they should have been taught in school but the alternative is exhaustion. Mentoring volunteers, especially LIS students, could be extremely useful to both mentor and volunteer. The greater the number the better. So finding this happy medium between not letting volunteers do anything, and leading them through everything, seems pretty important. Especially in the financial situation a lot of libraries are in. This medium should probably be pointed out in a volunteer orientation.

    Maybe a volunteer tiering system is in order!

    Triage is an important function as well, and I don’t think that’s being discounted. But there’s a pretty big distinction between triage and greeting. In this scenario the patron’s problem did seem like a welcome desk problem. I don’t know the specifics of his request, or of library operating procedures, but it sounds like moving him anywhere else would have caused more problems than dealing with it there. If it was indeed a complex issue once the communication barrier was vaulted, then yes, transferring to the reference desk would be in order. But I imagine that was not the case.


  14. You’re right, there’s some really good points made by Andy and Grumpy Librarian. Especially: “If the Korean speaker comes back to the welcome desk tomorrow and expects the next volunteer to do the same, he may up disappointed at best and very confused at worst.” which honestly, didn’t even cross my mind when reading this post.

    I think I have a hard time connecting the ideal welcome desk with the reality of where I work. We only have three full time librarians (that includes the director). Between classes and committee meetings, the paraprofessionals at our front desk are often left to answer reference questions. We’ve guided them in this and if the question goes beyond “Where can I access online databases, find this book” and lets not forget all the tech questions like “how do I adjust the margins on my paper, or format my paper for MLA” then they are referred back to us.

    I think I may of reacted more to the fact that she didn’t praise you and encourage you for being able to answer the question as well as you did. I’m sensitive to that and hate to imagine a budding MLIS student not being praised for doing something well (maybe this is because I only just got out of grad school myself). If she could of explained the reasoning as well as Andy and Grumpy Librarian did then it would make sense and it would be easier to understand exactly what your role at the desk is supposed to be.

    Thanks for the good discussion.


  15. Katie, I was waiting for this post to go live to comment, and then couldn’t get to it till this evening. Being way down at number 18 in this great discussion, I’m surprised that no one has brought up unions. In my experience most public and academic librarians are unionized, which tightly controls who does what and where and when, in interest of protecting our profession. I believe deeply in this objective of the union, particularly when it comes to public libraries, as I’ve heard in anti-library funding rhetoric over and over that public libraries should be run by volunteers. I can only point to the majority of school libraries here in California, which are often run by parent volunteers, making the libraries often function more as repositories for books than libraries proper.
    That being said, I agree with the chorus of voices above that this situation was managed poorly, in that your skill set could have brought more to the library in a different volunteer position. Volunteers are such a wonderful resource: their hearts are with ours, in the library! Each volunteer brings a range of skills to the library, from teens who need community service credit to retired people with the experience of a career and life to aid us in our mission. I would love to see more effective volunteer policy in place, at public libraries in particular, to make use of this resource, while still honoring the profession of librarian.


  16. I think GOL’s perspective is common. I’ve been frustrated by how hard it is to find people who want a volunteer or intern who is pursuing the MLS. I initially assumed libraries would be eager for that free help, but I imagine some of our less than stellar fellow students have made it difficult for the rest of us. Perhaps HLS needs a post on how to FIND volunteer and internship opportunities with people who want us? That would be incredibly helpful.


  17. This post, and the subsequent comments, could not have come at a better time for me. I recently (within the past week) started working as a page at my local library. During my first day of training, the library associate who was conducting my orientation repeatedly stressed that I was only allowed to answer directional questions (where’s the water fountain? where’s the bathroom? etc.). All other questions must be referred to the information desk.

    “What if someone just needs help finding the lastest James Patterson novel?” I asked. “Send them to the information or circulation desk.” was her reply. As an MLS student who will be graduating in a few months, I bristled a bit at this. Surely, she didn’t think I was THAT incompetent did she?

    As a result of the discussion that’s been taking place on here, I now know that she probably didn’t think I was incompetent (which makes me feel better I have to admit), but was simply following library policy. Thank you for that. I had no idea that policies like these were so common.


    • I’m glad the post and the discussion could help you, Laura! This can be a tough subject to bring up without ruffling any feathers, and I’m glad everyone’s perspectives were able to help alleviate some frustration. 🙂


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