How Volunteering May Actually Be Hurting Your Job Hunt

by Lisa Huntsha, Head Editor, INALJ Sweden
previously published on 6/19/13

How Volunteering may actually be Hurting your Job Hunt

lisahuntshaIf you’re job hunting, undoubtedly countless people have suggested that you spend some time volunteering. This can, of course, be beneficial for a several reasons:

  • You can get your foot in the door at a local library or organization;
  • You are able to keep relevant with current library trends;
  • You show dedication to the field, even if you are in between paying positions;
  • You receive much needed hands-on experience.

That said, let’s play devil’s advocate and look at a few reasons volunteering might be hurting your job hunt, and even the library profession as a whole:

1) If you are willing to work for free, why should an organization find funding to pay you? Also the “why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free” argument.

Professionals do themselves a disservice by being willing to work for free. If you’re still in school and working on your degree, or if you are pre-degree and figuring out if librarianship is right for you, by all means, volunteer. But if you have a professional degree, let’s examine the message that working for free is sending to potential employers.

2) If you’re not asking for compensation, you’re not valuing your skills.

Or you are at least severely undervaluing what you have to offer an organization. Giving your time and skills away for free can send the message that your time and skills are not valuable.

3) You might be stifling your career advancement or setting yourself up for future exploitation.

If you don’t advocate for your professional worth now, it may make it harder to be professionally where you want to be 5 or 10 years from now. Maybe you’re already read this New York Times article about 20-somethings “paying their dues” to break into competitive fields: If you haven’t, it’s worth a read.


Volunteering as a library professional is something we need to look long and hard at, and be willing to discuss critically. I would be remiss, however, if I posed the argument that you shouldn’t volunteer and didn’t offers some alternative suggestions. So, what should you do instead if you want to gain experience while you’re job hunting?


1) Volunteer for an organization that doesn’t have the ability to compensate its employees.

Find an organization that is run entirely by volunteers (like INALJ!) so that by volunteering you are not replacing someone who might otherwise be compensated for this work. This way, you can use your skills to gain experience in a manner that is not taking away paying positions. (I do realize that many libraries and nonprofits are severely underfunded and benefit from volunteers. My argument for the sake of this article is that professionals should not be the ones volunteering).

2) Use your skills to create your own group/organization/event that fills a need in your community.

Think outside the box! See a need and address it. Using your skills does not necessarily mean volunteering for an established organization, so think creatively about how you can put your talents to use.

3) If you are volunteering, don’t be afraid to ask for a modest or even creative form of compensation for your time.

This request could come in many forms. You could ask the organization to fund a trip to a conference, or see if they can offer you some sort of other perk. Again, think outside the box and advocate for your skills.

Overall, I think we should have some serious discussions with library (and allied) professionals about the nature of volunteering. Feel free to weigh-in in the comments section! And, remember when it comes to unpaid internships there are legality issues you should be aware of. But perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.


Previously entitled Playing Devil’s Advocate: How Volunteering may actually be Hurting your Job Hunt

  21 comments for “How Volunteering May Actually Be Hurting Your Job Hunt

  1. CT
    May 1, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    This is a good article that speaks directly to me. I have been volunteering for a long time now and am having trouble landing a job nevertheless. The last interview I went on at the library I volunteer at was very stressful for me and I could not figure out why. I think it is because I have undervalued myself too much and thus have difficulty rising to the top in the interview selection process. Although I have been able to apply many LIS skills and theories to real world situations, I think once someone learns what they want to learn they need to move on to another skill or volunteer with another institution. I like the idea of volunteering for places that do not pay other LIS professionals to perform the same duties, but I know I have acquired some valuable skills at these institutions that I would not have without volunteering. I think how much time we devote is the key.

  2. Chris
    April 28, 2014 at 11:54 am

    I agree with the comment that it is not as cut and dried as this article states…I don’t have anything against volunteering. Does it make it harder for others to get jobs? Maybe, but it can also be part of learning to compete in a field that does not always have the funding to support everyone interested in librarianship, especially against those with much more experience. Most employers want more than an education and even entry level jobs are hard to land because there is someone with more experience. I think the key is measuring out “how long should I volunteer?” I don’t feel volunteering devalues anyone as they might be getting needed experience, but if one does nothing but volunteer…well that is not healthy for job searching. In the end that makes librarianship more of a hobby than an occupation.

  3. August 24, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I saw this post not long after I sought out a volunteer opportunity at a local small, private university library. I work part time as a virtual reference librarian, but don’t really get the opportunity to explore other areas such as instruction and collection development. They’re going to allow me to “create my own internship” of sorts, so I have more freedom really focus on the areas I’m lacking in. My hope is that this internship will help me network and build up my skills so I can be competitive in my particular area of interest, distance education in academic libraries.

  4. Duffy
    July 10, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    While I was still job-hunting, if I *did* volunteer, I never volunteered doing professional work for an organization that could otherwise afford to employ professional librarians. I sought out those kinds of opportunities as paid internships or practica for course credit. The strictly volunteer opportunities I took were generally with organizations that were all/mostly-volunteer anyways- small local museums, for example. It gave me the opportunity to help out an organization in need while still gaining a broad range of experiences.

  5. J
    July 10, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    By offering to volunteer, I landed the job I have now.
    Here’s how that happened…
    I was transitioning to working from home for an unrelated job, so I had some free time and wanted to volunteer my tech skills at the library. I had gotten the ball rolling by reaching out to someone at the library to volunteer. She put me in contact with someone else. When we talked about volunteering, I also mentioned the charity group and librarian social group I had founded, and she seemed impressed. She told me there was an opening and that I should apply for it. Then my employer decided they didn’t want to pay me anymore, so I was out of a job. Luckily, a little while later, I got hired by the library to help run a variety of computer labs and I’ve been there for over a year. (The fact that it’s only part-time and grant-funded is a whole ‘nother story…)

    If I hadn’t been open to unpaid work, I wouldn’t have connected with the opportunity, and I might have had to go back to office drudgery.

    One thing to consider is that when you are volunteering, you are freely giving of your time and abilities to an organization. If you don’t want to volunteer there, you can usually look around and find a place that better suits you. It’s nice to get something back from volunteering, but expecting compensation from it is not really in the spirit, or the point, of volunteering.

  6. Karly
    July 3, 2013 at 11:01 am

    I think that sometimes, a word can mean different things to different people. For example, I have suggested volunteering to students and recent grads in the past, but I NEVER meant “volunteer at a library to do librarian work for free.” Rather, I meant, “volunteer with your professional association.” I will make sure to make this distinction in the future – thank you for writing this post and pointing that out to me.

    My personal experience with volunteering for SLA helped me achieve three of the four benefits you outlined at the beginning of your post:

    “You can get your foot in the door at a local library or organization:” by attending local chapter meetings, I met 20 to 30 librarians from my area. I was often the only student at meetings, too, so I stood out and got noticed.

    “You are able to keep relevant with current library trends:” SLA programming helped me stay current.

    “You show dedication to the field, even if you are in between paying positions:” volunteering for my professional association showed my dedication to the field.

    The only benefit that I did not directly receive was: “You receive much needed hands-on experience.” However, I could argue that through my volunteer work on the chapter’s programming committee and with my school’s student chapter, I gained experience in leadership, organization, planning, promotion, working with volunteers, and some others I’m most liking forgetting right now.

    Through my volunteer work with SLA, the librarians in my area knew my name, that I was interested in special libraries, and what I was capable of. I found this invaluable.

    I am not a member of ALA nor have I ever worked in a public library, so I can’t speak for other associations or how to get noticed by public librarians. But if you’re interested in special libraries or non-traditional work, I recommend volunteering for SLA or a similar professional association.

  7. July 2, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    I can see where you’re coming from, but I firmly believe, and it is my experience that volunteering is incredibly beneficial when looking for work. I wouldn’t have the job I’m in now, nor the one before if I hadn’t of volunteered, and I know quite a few other professionals who have had the same experience.

    There is an important distinction between volunteer work and professional work however. Volunteers shouldn’t be doing anything that paid staff members have on their statement of duties. Volunteers should be there to support the organisation, not run it. Work like cleaning and sorting material for later use, offering a further research/reference service to clients or offering an ICT/computing help service are all great ways to volunteer, and there are plenty of other ways too. Basically you have to draw a line, and not cross it otherwise you are undervaluing yourself. If they want you to do that sort of work, like you say, they should pay you for it.

    I still think volunteering is a great way to meet new people, network and build your skill set, especially when unemployed. It shouldn’t be ignored offhand, as it still contributes to the quality of service that libraries can (should) offer, and anything that increases that quality of service promotes the LIS sector as a whole, and therefore supports any future job you will have.

  8. librarycat53
    July 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    I’m not sure what volunteer positions someone with an MLS could take that would count as “getting the milk for free”. While we would enjoy having someone with a degree as a volunteer, I would not use volunteers in positions which required confidentiality, no matter what their qualifications, and that would severely limit what they could be allowed to do. Our paid employees pretty much do everything because we are a small library, and often there is only one on duty; the work that volunteers do is book cleaning and basic repair, shelf reading, helping with program activities and other tasks which do not require specialized training. Apparently, some library administrations are allowing volunteers to do everything that their paid employees do – ?

  9. Raquel Mendelow
    July 1, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I could not agree with you more, Lisa. The best solution is to find a job in the meantime that offers librarian-like work. For example, I write up HTML codes for images to be uploaded onto eBay for a businessman. That is akin to real-life library work in creating and maintaining a website.

  10. Kate
    June 20, 2013 at 12:51 am

    I agree with you! I am always concerned about devaluing myself as a professional since I frequently try to help people with their information needs whenever possible. Thank you for sharing this in a post!

  11. Barb Duff
    June 20, 2013 at 12:04 am

    I totally understand the need for experience and networking through volunteering, but please consider this: I have worked in a one person library at a non-profit organization for over a decade. I support those needing experience (from one to four people at a time) through college library student field placements, high school co-ops and university summer grant students. I put a lot of work and time into providing them with worthwhile projects, feedback and evaluations. I feel going that route is a way to support my profession and community. I have been reluctant in the past to accept volunteers unless there was a large project for which I needed assistance because my institution’s main reason for volunteers was not for the volunteers’ own experience but for free labour. (My job is part time and I have requested more days for several years just to do the everyday work.) Under new leadership, my position has been eliminated and I am now asked to train volunteers to do my job. I have appreciated the work of volunteers but what I feared has actually happened. If you intend to volunteer (I do believe that there is a need for volunteers to everyone’s benefit), please question the motive behind an organization’s eagerness to recruit volunteers. Great “thinking outside the box” ideas, I will be doing that myself. Also, consider asking someone in the library field to mentor you, many doors may be opened in this way.

    • Ruth
      November 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      Ouch. That stings – being replaced by volunteers that you were required to train to take over your job! I do hope the contacts you made while in this position were able to provide you with some referrals or other assistance (recommendations?).

      Your way of taking on volunteers, for specific projects for specific lengths of time, seems to have been well thought out. Last week, I talked with an academic librarian who does what you did – she selectively accepted qualified MLIS volunteers for limited term/limited scope projects when her schedule permitted. A lot of work goes into overseeing volunteers and the best volunteers greatly appreciate the time, mentoring and assistance they have been given. (This librarian set up a project that focused on a skill/topic the volunteer wanted experience with, provided mentoring and instruction, and upon successful completion of 3 months’ work, the motivated/efficient/’hireable’ volunteer could generally count upon this librarian for a solid reference).

  12. Jessica
    June 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    I have been trying to gain professional experience since I graduated a month ago (yesterday…crud, it has been a month). I had already sent out one email asking to volunteer and got shot down because they had just taken on another volunteer prior to my email. I was thinking of asking to volunteer at another location when I read this. I definitely made me think twice about it since the one I was looking at as a second choice was 1) further away from my first choice (more gas money) and 2) has time requirements (3-4 hours a week and a year long commitment? Whats up with that?).
    I do like suggestion by the author and TM (the commenter) on thinking outside of the box for volunteering. I’m just not sure if all of the places I would want to volunteer my time that are considered “outside of the box” (ie. emergency response, public health departments that don’t have libraries, means, etc.) would be considered appropriate volunteer experience for job placement.
    Any suggestions would be useful. Definitely a thought provoking article. Thanks!

  13. Elena Sisti
    June 19, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Interesting points, and something I’ve been struggling with during my job search.

  14. Sarah Brown
    June 19, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I fully agree that we are doing our profession a disservice by volunteering post MLS/MLIS. Sometimes we feel like volunteering is the only thing we can do to keep learning and stay in-touch with the profession when we’re not FT, paid professionals in our preferred field. I would like to mention that in addition to volunteering at an organization that is solely volunteers, volunteering to serve on a committee with ALA or your state or local chapter is a great way to volunteer your time, contribute to the profession *as a professional*, and put some new skills (or flesh out ones already there) on your resume.
    Volunteering at a given place does not mean you’ll get the job that opens up. I speak from not one, not two, but three personal experiences with this. Long story 🙂

    • June 19, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      I very nearly took on a ‘volunteering’ gig at a well-known institution. I eventually decided not to. The tasks were really what I felt a paid professional should be doing at that type of institution, no compensation was offered, and they honestly asked a lot of commitment time. It may have been a good experience but it would have cost me money out of pocket in commuting costs and additional stress.

      Instead, I used some of that money I’d set aside to join some local professional development orgs I wasn’t already involved in. I’m also trying to get myself on a committee or two this year in SAA. I can’t afford the big national stuff this year, but there are some great regional conferences and workshops I’m looking forward to as well. In sum, I’m still technically spending money and not earning any as a paid professional yet, but I feel this is a much better use of my time and skills.

  15. T M
    June 19, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    If you are a part of a religious or other community organization starting or maintaining a lending library to forward their goals is a GREAT way to put your professional skills to use. If you don’t have a religious affiliation why not see if they want a library at the local nursing home, women’s shelter or girls home? Think outside the box!

  16. anon for this
    June 19, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I’ve been on hiring committees in a non-profit (not a library) and we’d often have volunteers apply for jobs. We were torn because on the one hand, they were dedicated to the mission of the organization and often good workers. On the other, we’d lose a good volunteer by hiring them as staff. But if we didn’t hire them, perhaps they’d stop volunteering. It was never a simple choice!

    I think that for a professional who is exploring a different aspect of librarianship, volunteering could be helpful. You bring balance to this recommendation – it’s not always cut-and-dried, volunteer and you will get hired.

  17. June 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I do moderate the comments here so chime in but be constructive 🙂 btw I love this post because I do think overall librarians are under-compensated. Though INALJ is all volunteer we are volunteering to help people find paid work 🙂 so we too strongly believe in and support the need for monetary compensation for library work done.

    • Rachel Minnaar
      June 19, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      This is such a coincidence. I am an MLIS and just started as a volunteer teach for a literacy organization. I am hoping that it gives me to experience to maybe teach at a community college one day. I am also finishing an MA thesis in religious studies. Would you say that what I am doing is detrimental to my job hunt? I am hoping not, as one of the points of this, is to get experience in order to find a paying job.

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