Service with Intention: Saying Yes for the Right Reasons

When I began my MSLIS program, the universe of librarianship and information science seemed to stretch out eternally before me. As such, I felt like a bit like Kimmy Schmidt on her first day in New York City. If I enthusiastically say, “Yes!” to everything that comes my way, the path forward will magically reveal itself to me (spoiler alert: it didn’t). By taking on too much, for the wrong reasons, well-meaning students can negatively impact themselves, their organizations, and the culture of student service in their library program.

As librarians, we tend to be a helpful bunch. We also hate to say no. One of the wonderful things about library school is the sheer number of opportunities available to students. Sometimes this results in paid gigs, but more often it’s volunteer or service work. As a result of saying “Yes!” to most every opportunity that came my way, I ended my first semester with mixed feelings about my accomplishments. On one hand, I gained a ton of experience doing lots of different things. On the other hand, I was stretched very, very thin. My calendar was my dearest, and sometimes only, friend. And by choosing to participate in so many activities, I had to settle for a mediocre experience inside the classroom that first semester.

We all feel the need to succeed in library school, but sometimes those ambitions blind us from our original aspirations. Burnout is the most common and visible effect of taking on too much. If you’re not sure what that entails, Maria Accardi hosts a blog about burnout that is a good resource for both current and aspiring librarians.

Given how many library students are in my program, all of us are looking for ways to stand out. Volunteering is one avenue and Champaign-Urbana is rich with opportunity. But because volunteering doesn’t hold the same accountability as paid work, it’s much easier to start volunteering than it is to maintain. This is especially true once the pressure of grad student life takes hold.

As an isolated incident, this isn’t so bad. Volunteering is, after all, voluntary. But consider the perspective of groups providing volunteer opportunities: Year after year, incoming library students express enthusiasm for service, only to drop off a few months or even weeks later. This can destabilize organizations that rely on volunteers to regulate their workload and fulfill their mission. It can also erode the informal relationships these organizations have built with the library school.

Lastly, and I think this has the most enduring impact: Consider the climate that is created by students who take on too much, especially as leaders in their cohort or program. No matter how large or small a program, the work we do in and out of class makes a difference in how others view us and how we view ourselves. When other students would check-in last semester, I had no qualms about letting people know I felt stressed about being overworked. This sends two messages: 1) “Look at me, look at how hard I work,” and 2) “Even though this is really hard, this is how it has to be.” Neither encourage supportive networking or realistic expectations.

Working to the point of exhaustion shouldn’t be equated with accomplishment, nor should it be cause for celebration. Yes, library school is challenging, as it should be. As a library student, I don’t deserve a cookie for simply showing up for the things I obligated myself to do. Service work is about contributing to something greater than my individual efforts. If I make my service work all about me, those efforts will inevitably fail once I graduate and move on.

If you plan on being a librarian, I highly encourage you to tackle some sort of service work while in school. You don’t have to be the shiniest star in your organization, but I do recommend a few tips for making the right choice about how to serve, and in what capacity.

Learn how to say no.
Not every service opportunity will be a good fit. Weigh the benefits and consequences of service on coursework, self-care, and work-life balance.

Ask for a moment.
If someone offers you an exciting, new opportunity, don’t be afraid to say, “Let me think about it.” People rarely retract an offer just because you want a few days to ensure you’re making the right choice.

Colleagues, not the competition.
More often than not, service work is about working together. And yet some service is more coveted than others, especially positions of leadership. Treat service work as an opportunity to come together, not to best fellow students.

Share the wealth.
Sometimes service isn’t about taking on all the work yourself. Instead, it means passing along opportunities that may be a better fit for other LIS students. This builds good will, takes the pressure off you, and strengthens the reputation of your program as friendly to service. A win-win.

In other words, when we say yes to service for the right reasons, the benefits are ten-fold what we initially put in.


Image from itsgreg on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published April 11, 2016 .

7 replies

  1. As a new student this semester I wanted to say YES to everything that sounded interesting. And everything sounded interesting. I will cut back more next semester so I have time to focus on what truly matters. Thanks for this perspective.


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