Sunday, September 14, 2014

Are you a volunteer?

Sage advice to a job hunter is to find a job that you enjoy and never work a day in your life.  In reality it is very hard to find a job that you are so passionate about that you would work there without pay if you were independently wealthy.  Most librarians love their profession and what being a librarian can contribute to the world.  Librarians try to make order out of chaos so that library users can find what they need or want.  

Most of the time, I write columns that are more academic than passionate.  Last week I saw an e-mail on HaSafran that made me angry.  The post wanted a volunteer to help organizing a synagogue library.  The person, the rabbi of the synagogue, posting did not even understand enough about how a library works to ask the right questions.  This rabbi has simcha (rabbinical ordination) from a yeshiva that does not require a college education and his biographical profiles on the synagogue web site and LinkedIn do not list a college degree.  He has been the rabbi of this congregation for about 20 years.

In July and August of 2003 I wrote two articles on the compensation, expertise and training of librarians.[1] One of the reasons I started writing these columns is to show off the expertise of librarians.  Librarians are valuable members of the education team.  One of the questions librarians hate to hear is, “It must be great to sit and read all day. Are you a volunteer?”[2]

Here is the rabbi’s request with all names and identifying details removed:

To whom it may concern,

 My name is Polony Almony, I have a small Congregation in a suburb. Over the last several years we built a Synagogue, established a full time kollel where Talmudic law is studied, and have an active outreach program where many people are connected to their Jewish tradition. Starting from scratch, we have built up a library of a few thousand (English) books.  Things were totally out of hand as far as having books borrowed and returned, with no good record of what was out. One lady in the community tried to make a system with cards that were in each book, but it really did not work. This summer my mother put bar codes on most of our books. She lives in another city, but came here to volunteer for a while.

At this point we are at an impasse as we try to get our library functioning again. The bar coding is still not finished for the hundreds of new books that were never entered, nor with old books as they come back. We also have not yet set up a system to actually start using the scanner that we have here. In addition my mother has told me that I must have a librarian come in once a week to simply keep the library in order.  Of course, paying a librarian is something that I simply don't have funds for. I've been trying to get a local person to volunteer, but haven't succeeded yet. I know that in many fields, schools encourage their students to spend some time interning, as that gives them experience. Someone suggested that I contact you, if you might be aware of or possibly be able to help me find an intern and at the same time help us get our library together?

Thanks for your time and consideration.
Rabbi Polony Almony

Commentary:  There are many synagogues are in suburban areas 10 or more miles from urban centers with a large number of observant Jews.  Rabbi Almony has worked very hard over the past 20 years to establish a community with a building.  In the early years they had no set location. They have a kollel with several families who are part of the community and two commute more than 50 miles each way.  I am not totally sure what he means by “Talmudic law.”  Most yeshivot base their learning on the text of Talmud.  My synagogue has daily and weekly Talmud classes.   We also have classes in Jewish law.  While the Talmud may be the source of Jewish law, we don’t base our observance directly on the Talmud. We use later codes of law and legal opinions. These contemporary opinions make the principals for the Talmud relevant to our times.

Building a collection requires lots of work.  The process is not just ordering books from a store.  Collection building is a process of understanding your current and future audiences.  It requires understanding of the book trade, budgeting, and subject knowledge.  If the rabbi built a collection, then he is to be commended.  If there is just a bunch of book collected without a plan, then there is a problem. Material acquisition is a never ending task as new books are published all the time and the audience changes.

I really don’t understand his statement of applying bar codes to all the books.  A bar code is just a pointer to a catalog entry.  Without a catalog, the bar code is worthless.  The circulation system needs to query the bibliographic and patron databases to check out books.  Rabbi Almony does not say anything about non-book materials. Does the library have audio-visual items, periodicals, electronic books, or databases?

The part that really bothers me is the request for an unpaid intern.  The Rabbi contacted a library school in the same metropolitan area with the request.  The synagogue does not have a budget to pay the intern or even reimburse for travel expenses.  They expect someone to drive 20-25 miles each way for no pay.  I drive 15 miles and I don’t like to cost in time and money for the commute.  When I was in college I traveled 2 hours by public transportation for a teaching job, but I was paid.  I worked in an academic library for three years while in college and I was paid.  I was also supervised and guided by experienced librarians and teachers.

An intern not only should be compensated, but must work under the close supervision of an experienced professional.  The rabbi does not have that expertise. 

There is a place in a congregation or community for volunteers.  In small congregations volunteers do work that large congregations would hire someone to do.   In an informal poll many volunteers in my congregation put in 4-5 hours per week.  That translates to about $4000-5000 worth of services per year. 

There a place for volunteers in the library.  Volunteers do jobs that paid staff never gets around to doing.  In some libraries they run the friends of the library groups. They have to learn "first do, no harm."  They could give tours, help with promotional activities, work on programs, help supervise traffic, help check out books, etc.   Volunteers are very well meaning people, but they have limitations.  The biggest limit is time.  They will show up when they want and don’t have time conflicts.

What can Rabbi Almony do to get his congregation’s library in order? It is to his credit that he recognizes the need to organize the library to enable circulation.  They could have a fund raiser to higher a librarian who could supervise, but that is not in their budget.  Graduate schools will not allow an internship without supervision from a veteran professional.  If the student is going to earn credit, there has to be some learning involved and that usually means documentation and/or an academic paper.  The rabbi would not be able to perform this supervision or evaluation. Students and interns are learning how to be professionals.  

Emily Bergman in a September 3, 2014 posting to HaSafran, says that she is volunteer for her congregation’s library. That is her gift to the congregation. She has a full-time job as an academic librarian.  This kind of volunteer position is the only type I can condone.  Ms. Bergman makes it clear that this is her contribution.

Librarians are professionals.  I would not expect my car, my plumbing, my electricity, my roof, or my teeth to be fixed for free or by a volunteer intern. I would not want a medical student treating me without supervision.

Don't demean our profession.  Don't condone using volunteers for professional work.  It is hard enough to get people to understand that libraries don't get created and don't operate by magic.

There is a story -- A homeowner called for a plumber to fix his noisy pipes. The plumber arrived looked around for a few moments, asked a few questions, then took his hammer and hit a pipe.  He announced that he was done and prepared a bill for the homeowner.  The homeowner was thankful for the job, but didn't understand why a 2 minute visit cost $150.  The plumber apologized and changed the bill to:  $5.00 for the hammer stroke; $145 to know where to hit the pipe.

[1] Stuhlman, Daniel D.  “Professional Compensation”  in Librarian's Lobby July 2003  and   “Professional Preparation” in Librarian's Lobby August 2003.   
[2] For another opinion that supports the idea that libraries are not run by volunteers see:  “Please Don’t Say This to a Librarian” by Ingrid Henny Abrams written under the name magpielibrarian.  In the blog:  The Magpie Librarian: A Librarian's Guide to Modern Life and Etiquette (July 2012)   

Tags: #librarian  #judaica  #volunteers




 I don't usually like anonymous comments, but the comment below has nothing wrong with it.  I did fix the spacing and correct typos.  I do thank the writer for both agreeing and disagreeing.  My intent was to spark discussion.

Me has left a new comment on your post "Are you a volunteer?":

There is quite a lot I disagree with in here - and a lot I agree with. I do not criticize the rabbi for not knowing how a library works or what questions to ask. If libraries appear to run by magic, that's because of our professional skills - and those underlying skills and structures shouldn't be obvious. Credit to him for spotting that it doesn't work at the moment and for wanting to make improvements.

I hold up my hands and admit to being a volunteer, having retired from a long career as a professional bib services librarian. It's hard to give up the habit. I would never, ever, volunteer in an institution which should be paying professional staff - public libraries, academic libraries, government and corporate libraries should all be employing qualified staff and paying them appropriately.I absolutely do not condone volunteers being used to paper over the gaps caused by under-funding or because professional skills are not recognized or valued. And I have no respect for professional librarians who act as volunteers in institutions like these. However, there are other types of libraries which would close if volunteers did not keep them open and those libraries still have a valuable role to play for their communities.

I take no payment for my time or my skills, but I do get travel expenses - my one demand was that I should not be out of pocket as result of volunteering. But because I do not get paid does not mean that I am any less committed. I really am very weary of hearing the same criticism of volunteers, that you can't count on us. I am sure that some of us are unreliable, but so are plenty of employees.
The real danger with volunteers comes when they are managed by people who are not prepared to treat them in the same way as paid staff - by being clear about their roles and responsibilities, by reviewing their performance and making sure that they fit the library where they work and do what the service needs, and by providing training, encouragement and support.



David Bigwood said...

A collection of books without a librarian is a reading room. They have their place, but it is not a library. Much like the oil-change shop is not the same as a auto-repair shop with a qualified mechanic.

Cynthia M. Parkhill said...

For approximately three years, I volunteered as the administrator of a small church lending library. I viewed the position as a "learning laboratory" for my studies toward my degree in Library and Information Technology, and in that sense, I felt compensated for the effort I put in. This included drafting a collection development policy, which directly earned credit for a class. I sympathize with you about the devaluing of our profession, especially about the perception that we "read all day." I hope that you continue to raise awareness of the ongoing effort that goes into library operations.

Anonymous said...

I was appointed as a synagogue librarian a few years ago to work with, and eventually replace, the current senior librarian. It's unpaid and frustrating work. much of our collections are outdated or out of print. The Shul has no money to update and past efforts at cataloging our collections weren't sustained. our library was created in 1950 and a fair amount of our collections are original publications from that time. Many on our board of directors would like to have the library sold off and dismantled rather than put in the effort to promote it.