When I started at the UT iSchool in the spring of 2016, I realized pretty quickly that in order to maximize my education in information and archival studies, I would need to get experience in the field. Because I have to work full time to afford to live in Austin, paid internships, part time positions, and short-term student jobs were not going to work for me. So the only other option for gaining professional field experience that would provide me with flexible hours and a looser commitment would be volunteering.
I’m no stranger to volunteering in libraries. I was a youth library volunteer for a large portion of my childhood, working with kids in the Summer Reading program, shelving books, and basically doing whatever helpful tasks I was capable of at that age. However, it had been years since I had actively volunteered and since I was still new to the Information Studies program and to the Austin area, it was difficult to know where to start. I knew I wanted to work in an archive as my career aspirations lie in the archival field, but beyond that I was kind of mystified about how to get a foot in the door.
Luckily, as a part of my Introduction to Archival Enterprise I course, Dr. Trace arranged for all of us to work as student volunteers at local archives for our practicum projects. I lucked out and got to work with the fantastic folks at the Austin History Center, which is the local history division of the Austin Public Library. Once the Spring 2016 semester ended, I went ahead and stayed on as a volunteer working with Amanda Jasso, the Mexican-American Community Archivist at the Austin History Center. I have been digitizing and transcribing the oral histories of local Latinos and I have found the experience very satisfying. There is something magical about working to bring the voices of the past back to life so that others may learn from them.
UT iSchoolers are encouraged to volunteer around the Austin community. In fact, student volunteer hours logged as part of the iSchool’s iGive campaign are some of the metrics the school proudly displays both to alumni and other schools within the University of Texas at Austin. And as I mentioned before, volunteer hours can be a great way to get your foot in the door in your chosen field while still working a job to support yourself. If you are planning to volunteer your time this fall, be sure to log your volunteer hours using the online iGive form so that the iSchool can include your hours in the student total. Last fall, 69 students volunteered over 4,090 hours in our community and this year the iGive campaign would love to see us do more.
While volunteering is indeed a form of work, it is certainly different from internships and student jobs on campus. As a volunteer, there are many freedoms that you do not typically have in those settings but there are also a lot of restrictions. It can be difficult to navigate sometimes and volunteers can feel as if they are more of a hindrance than a help. I know I have certainly made some mistakes along the way. Below is a list of tips to help you maximize your volunteer experience:
1. Find out who your supervisor is.
- Some places have coordinators for all volunteers and others have you work one-on-one with a staff member or under the auspices of a specific department. Make sure that you know who you need to report your progress to.
2. Log your hours.
- Many institutions, including the Austin Public Library where I volunteer, report volunteer hours as charitable giving for tax purposes and need that information promptly.
3. Recognize your role.
- Volunteers are usually restricted in how they are allowed to interact with patrons and other volunteers. Make sure you understand what you are permitted to do and what you are not. Often, this is to protect the institution that you volunteer for from liability. For instance, at the Austin History Center, I am not permitted to answer patron questions or provide reference assistance; only an employee or the archivist on duty can do this.
4. Take care of yourself.
- Make sure that you follow occupational safety regulations. Many institutions do not provide workplace compensation or insurance for volunteers. Take breaks and avoid repetitive motion injuries.
- Make sure that your supervisor is aware of your progress on any projects or assignments that you are responsible for. Let them know if there are issues with equipment or processes that might affect your work.
6. Show up.
- Once you make a commitment to a place, stick to it. They may not rely on you the same way they do an employee, but your work is important to what they do and disappearing for weeks at a time can cause disruptions to the workflow of the institution that you are at. In this sense, treat your volunteer position like a job. If you are going to be late, call. If you need to miss one or more shifts, send an email to your supervisor as a courtesy. One of the benefits of a volunteer gig is the flexible time investment, but still be conscientious that the institution relies on the labor that you committed to perform as a volunteer and will need to plan around your absence.
Once again, volunteering is an amazing way to give back, get involved, supplement your education, and make professional connections in your field. I hope that my fellow iSchoolers will join me in helping to provide access to information in our communities this fall!