On LIS careers and volunteering

Many people on Twitter saw this thread by Megan Chorusch, on the dilemma and cost of LIS Volunteering.

It hurt my heart and made me angry to think that we have people who are have to consider giving up so much for a chance in this industry. It also made me think about my own journey and the way we all contribute to this problem. @Lissertations has also written on this and I encourage you to read her wise and angry words.

The first thing I need to say that Megan’s story is the story of so many, including my own. The fact that ten years has gone by and we are still in the same spiral is alarming and a sad indictment on the industry.

When I started studying librarianship, I knew I would need to get a library job as soon as possible. I left a permanent job, for a 12 month part time contract – it became much much longer and full time but still casual.

I took another casual job at a librarian level. While I was finishing my masters and working two jobs – I was so stressed I developed eczema around my eyes. It was horrendous and I was exhausted running from one job to another and trying to study.

While studying I also did voluntary work at a couple of places. One project I loved and did for six months or more. It was as much for interest as for my CV.  I volunteered to be on an ALIA committee, I showed everyone I cared, was enthusiastic, engaged. Was active on social media. And all of this still wasn’t enough…

I went for a job, didn’t get it, was offered casual work… Took that (happened twice). From 2011-2012 I worked casually at three public libraries. Worse, I was competing with others in the same boat and we’d play a game of fastest finger first to see who would get that day’s offered shift.

If it wasn’t for the cheap accomodation and support of my family, I would not have been able to do this. But it was also disillusioning and made me question who I was, and the industry as a whole.

When I managed to get a permanent part time job I still felt that this wouldn’t be enough because there was limited desk work, so I continued working my casual jobs as well. At one point I had four jobs.

And from 2012-2016, most weeks I worked six-days-a-week. The longest stretch I ever worked was 10 days and then had one day off before working another six. I was perpetually exhausted and had no life. Thought it was worth it though and I’d be rewarded for my hard work.

But all of this still wasn’t enough… (Honestly whatever public libraries are looking for, clearly I don’t have it).

I’d like to tell Megan and co. not to volunteer, or give up too much for the industry on the hopes that it might lead to something because it’s not worth it. But of course I can’t. The reason this model exists is because out of it jobs do come – sometimes.

Part of me wants to see what would happen if we all went – about that volunteering that keeps the industry running; yeah, nah we aren’t doing it anymore. But there’s almost no chance everyone would agree to that. And then we’d have a situation where we’d all feel like we have too, to be seen as one of those who are engaged. Thus creating the problem we have now.

I still do casual work and volunteer, though it’s much more manageable these days. I also think about it differently now – I’m not trying to impress anyone or show them I’m engaged. It’s about giving back, increasing my own knowledge, helping new grads avoid the pitfalls and maybe changing things a little.

One of my volunteer roles is reviewing CVs for ALIA. As well as talking about their translatable skills, I often tell them to volunteer or take casual work. I see now that this is bad advice that perpetuates exploitation and gives false hope to new graduates. But there’s nothing else I can say…

There are no paths into the industry that don’t require years of slog and a whole lot of good luck. I often review CVs knowing there’s little chance of them getting a job in a public library at all. (I’ve only ever reviewed CVs for people interested in public library roles). This is not to say they wouldn’t be great at it or have translatable skills that would be an asset, just that there are others at the same level or better.

It’s unendingly depressing seeing the enthusiasm of students and new graduates, knowing that the jobs aren’t there and they’ll likely end up with their hopes dashed. I often want to tell them to run, run as far away as they can; that they have been sold a myth and only a very lucky will find the promised land.

I don’t have any answers on how we can change this. Beyond the twitter echo chamber, I doubt many see this as a problem. And without recognition from those in positions to change things, well, we are tilting at windmills.

A major issues with librarianship is that there is no single voice to advocate for workers. We have our sector unions but these can never address the totality of issues within the industry. A voice that actually speaks for us, a library union, is needed to support workers and make real changes in the industry.

As for me, working so much contributed to burn-out. But the disillusionment started long before, when I realised that all the volunteering and extra jobs was not getting me anywhere. It was never going to be enough.

So my advice to new grads and students is don’t give up everything for a career in libraries; think more broadly about your skills, don’t tie yourself to a particular library sector and if you are going to volunteer do it because you want to not with the hopes of getting anything out of it.

And remember that no library job is more important than life or your relationships… You are enough.





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