Is pro bono librarianship a thing?
October 19, 2021 4:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm a former librarian, and I miss doing reference work. Brainstorming ideas about how I might be able to draw on these skills and put a bit of good into my community as a volunteer?

I used to work in libraries. I loved the work, but I’ve since moved on to another career for some of the usual reasons: burnout, low pay, few job opportunities, etc. While the career change was the right choice for me and I’m not looking to return, I find there are some parts I really miss, particularly answering reference questions. Perhaps there is a way I could do connect to this type of work as a volunteer?

So, my questions for library/library-adjacent folks: Have you volunteered for a nonprofit in a way that uses reference/information searching skills? What did you do and how did you get connected with the work? I also would never want to replace a paid professional’s work—is there anything I should think about to make sure my volunteering couldn’t someday be used to justify not paying someone appropriately (e.g., “why can’t we just get more volunteers to do this instead of hiring someone”)?

I know Wikipedia is an obvious answer for this. I’ve dipped my toes in a bit and am familiar with 1Lib1Ref and Citation Hunter, but I’ve always found Wikipedia editing…overwhelming. If Wikipedia is your recommendation, I’d be interested in any tips to help find a niche!
posted by verity kindle to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You could start staffing the Wikipedia Reference Desks tonight if you'd like!

They are often overlooked but turn up an interesting mix of question askers from all around the world. Often they are working on improving Wikipedia, so you can indirectly support that too.

I had great fun volunteering there for a while, and they can definitely use more people who can provide real reference skills.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:59 PM on October 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

I don't know where you live, but schools in my region have just about eliminated school libraries because the principals have reckoned that the librarian salary is more essential for a teacher when they have only the budget for one professional. Some schools have scraped together libraries by accepting donations and doing what they can to make reading material available to students, but they almost never have a librarian. A part time volunteer librarian to help with resource organization and teach students how to research would be so, so appreciated. Is that something that would appeal to you?

One example.
posted by citygirl at 5:21 PM on October 19, 2021 [4 favorites]

Local history museums and cultural organizations often have need of volunteers, too.

And just in case you might need the idea in the future; there are people who do things like this as virtual assistants, especially for writers.
posted by stormyteal at 5:23 PM on October 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I volunteered in my local school district for a long time. (Not in the library.) Seconding citygirl's suggestions of the school. Although, I would not limit it to the library. There are a lot of opportunities in the high school and probably middle schools to teach the students and to guide the students in how to do research. Too often, the overworked teacher just sends them on their way with a research project but does not teach them how to research. The teaching is on the subject they are supposed to be researching. My ex was an inner city HS teacher of Social Studies and would have begged you to come in and help her students.
posted by AugustWest at 7:29 PM on October 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I do a lot of stuff for Wikipedia and I keep it very narrowband on specific non-fighty topics. And usually I find a thing that I like doing and then doing it repetitively until I get sick of it (YMMV on whether this is fun, it's fun for me). I honestly like their #1Lib1Ref program (and used to work for it) but it's not really a fun way to interact there for me. What I'm working on now are trying to add a picture to every Wikipedia page for a deceased librarian (I can use a tool to generate these lists) and then adding an image with a fair use rationale. It's fiddly but I enjoy it. Here are a few suggestions.

- The Wikipedia Typo Team! Different ways to get started, I kind of like Team moss which basically gives you a list of Wikipedia pages with words that are likely misspelled and you can check to see if they are (in which case, fix them) or not (in which case add some text to indicate "this is supposed to be this way")
- A local or topic-based project. There is Wikiproject Libraries which needs help in a few different places. You can meet other library people, learn some of the ropes, maybe find areas you are interested in. Here's a list of other active projects. Women in Red is a project I really like which helps get better representation of women on Wikipedia.
- Wikignomes do a lot of the little jobs around Wikipedia that are usually non-controversial but need doing, that page explains some of it.
- And agreeing with SaltySalticid, staffing the reference desks

Other community stuff that uses library skills that might be useful depending what your interests are

- staffing an info booth at community events (farmer's market, job fair &c.)
- helping promote community activities on local mailing lists or social media
- working for an organization where being a very open and friendly volunteer can go a long way towards making maybe hesitant people feel welcome like at a food shelf, soup kitchen, community thrift store or the like

If I can help more with Wikipedia ideas or guidance, my email is in my profile, don't hesitate to reach out.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 PM on October 19, 2021 [8 favorites]

I’ve volunteered with the archives of a national historic park, doing cataloging and other technical services work. Best volunteer gig ever, and I got to brush up on my MARC too.
posted by scyllary at 8:40 PM on October 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I spent several years volunteering with a health information hotline where a major part of what we did was just find resources for folks who had questions about sensitive health & relationship topics.

Using my research skills to help get people safe, reliable information that they might have searched awful sources for online was super rewarding. I'm not a librarian, but many of my fellow volunteers were, and I know it scratched that itch for them.

Maybe there's something like that in your area, supporting a community or subject you find meaningful?

It's slightly different, but I also spent some time working in the local community college's writing lab. It was basically open office hours for any student to bring a writing assignment they wanted feedback or help on. Some of it was teaching writing skills, some of it was just confidence coaching, but a lot of the time I was teaching people how to find information.

This was a paid gig, but I only did it a few hours a week, in the evening hours. I got a lot of adult/nontraditional students since they're often the ones taking evening classes.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:25 PM on October 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Please don't volunteer to do a librarian's job at a school that has cut their paid school librarian. It validates the school's decision to cut the position. I am a former school, current academic librarian whose research interests include school librarian effectiveness. The amount of effort school librarians put into advocacy for school library funding is significant, without much to show for it. People volunteering to be librarians without getting paid undermines all the efforts school librarians make for their positions to exist and to be paid a living wage.

I was going to suggest you look into volunteering with the Internet Public Library, except it looks like the organization went belly up shortly after I had to do shifts there for my MLS. See link. Maybe you could start or find a website like that where you could just answer questions from people on the internet who are having trouble finding information.
posted by DEiBnL13 at 9:39 PM on October 19, 2021 [13 favorites]

AugustWest’s comment reminded me of the fact that nobody in my rural high school ever taught us how to do proper research, and it was an immense burden to have to try to pick it up on the fly at university. Our 7-12 school librarian was way too overworked to have stepped into that gap. Someone like you could have made all the difference with some workshops.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:05 PM on October 19, 2021

Answerland has a volunteer program for their online reference service.
posted by kbuxton at 10:16 PM on October 19, 2021

Please don't volunteer to do a librarian's job at a school that has cut their paid school librarian. It validates the school's decision to cut the position. I am a former school, current academic librarian whose research interests include school librarian effectiveness. The amount of effort school librarians put into advocacy for school library funding is significant, without much to show for it. People volunteering to be librarians without getting paid undermines all the efforts school librarians make for their positions to exist and to be paid a living wage.

Sincere question: What is the likelihood that a school administration that has already gotten rid of their paid library staff is going to change their minds and put those salaries back into their inadequate budgets under any circumstances? Because it seems pretty low to me.

I’ve never heard of a school program being restored after it was cut, simply because no qualified volunteer stepped in to run it. I haven’t worked in K-12 education for decades, so I’m genuinely curious. My music teacher friends whose programs were cut didn’t get their jobs back later because the school boards suddenly woke up one day and said, “Oh, I guess we’d better raise property taxes and rebuild those programs instead of just letting the students go without.”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:18 PM on October 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

The public library in the village where I grew up had one paid part-time librarian (an MLIS student from a college about an hour away) who worked a day and a half a week, and the rest of the time it was either closed or run by a volunteer. If you could find a library in a similar situation and pick up a shift there, it might scratch the itch a little until you find something more rewarding.

(I read that the library burned down just recently, and it’s still very much
up in the air whether or not they’re going to try to rebuild or replace it. Very sad.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:28 PM on October 19, 2021

And now don’t I feel silly, because I just went and read that the fire insurance company who originally said they didn’t think they were obligated to pay have changed their minds. And the State Education Dept. is kicking in a grant for new material. So neverminds.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:36 PM on October 19, 2021

kbuxton already mentioned it, but I want to plug the possibility of volunteering for Answerland, the state of Oregon's 24/7 library reference chat service. You wouldn't be taking away a librarian's paid job. It's run by the State Library of Oregon and staffed by librarians and library science students throughout the state but they are always glad for a few more folks to help. Many small K-12 and public libraries use it as their only chat reference service, and many academic libraries use it for back-up/overnight. You answer questions from folks of all ages across the state, and often users are quite engaging and effusive in their thanks. You don't have to be in Oregon to do it. All questions are good, but many of these questions are "real" reference questions (I use that term loosely and hope you know what I mean), and being asked by folks who wouldn't have a live reference service available to them otherwise.

If you're specifically wanting in-person interactions, this is obviously not it. But maybe it will scratch that itch for you.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:41 PM on October 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am sympathetic toward those who balk at a volunteer replacing an eliminated paid librarian position. I actually agree with you, and as a volunteer nurse vaccinator position morphed into a paid position I've exhaled. I usually reject professional volunteer jobs as replacing professional paid jobs, but I felt vaccination was a higher calling and did it anyway. Now I'm paid and feel better, but I still think I did the right thing by volunteering early on. I have vaxxed thousand of people and feel possessive ownership of every protected person.

However, there is no chance in hell that these library functions will be replaced in this (insert your local poverty stricken educational population) community by paid qualified replacements or an internet alternative. No computers in those homes, no internet. This is a more basic community where physical books are the important currency. If there is not a physical library there's no internet substitute, no matter how well intentioned.

In this circumstance I've loosened my position regarding paid librarians in cash-strapped school districts, and I hope you will consider doing the same. It's the kids who suffer.
posted by citygirl at 8:45 PM on October 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

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