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My Experience as a Library Volunteer

Updated on April 8, 2015

Have You Ever Wondered What Goes on Behind the Scenes?

I am currently researching material for a non-fiction book series, and I needed access to some academic databases. Unfortunately, even being an alumna of two major research universities, they do not allow their graduates online access to research databases. Fortunately for me, I am on the planning committee of a group that meets at the Dallas Public Library, and the music librarian there let me know that I could access their databases if I had a library card. However, I had to be a resident of the City of Dallas, which I am not . . . so I thought I was stuck again!

Then she informed me that they had a program where if I would complete only twenty hours of volunteer work, I could get a library card good for full access for one year. Naturally, I jumped at the chance, and did my twenty hours on three consecutive Fridays. I left with a brand-new appreciation of how hard librarians actually work, and the kind of tedious, mind-numbing work they must do day after day--frankly, it makes housework seem attractive!

Libraries Provide a Vital Public Service

Libraries are the collection of the world's knowledge and imagination.
Libraries are the collection of the world's knowledge and imagination. | Source

The First Day

The downtown Dallas Public Library is open only for eight hours at a time, and at the end of the day I was glad to go home! Since I have a graduate degree in music, I turned out to be the most valuable in the Fine Arts section. First, I went up to the fourth floor and was given a pile of broken CD cases and some new CD cases, and salvageable bits of other CD cases. My job was to pry apart the broken CD cases, salvage what I could of the case, and put the CD, with a new label, new stickers, and a new number, into the CD cases I could reconstruct out of the pieces. For single CDs, this was not terribly hard, but for CD sets with four or six CDs, it was time-consuming to try to make sure there was room for all the CDs, booklets, cover art, etc. And I learned a lot about CD cover art design--libraries need all sorts of labels on those CDs, and at the same time when the labels are attached it's important not to cover up any information--which means that if you're considering cover art for a CD, make sure there's plenty of space without text for those labels to go, if you want the libraries to buy your CD!

When my fingertips got so sore that I couldn't pry apart any more cases, and I had pretty much finished the stack, I requested a different task, and I spent most of the rest of the day moving musical scores from one shelf to another, to make room for more purchases. During the rest of the morning and much of the afternoon, I moved over 3,000 musical scores, freeing up more than a dozen shelves, and eventually had to rest and request another task, so I was put to sorting CDs for later shelving. At a few minutes before six p.m. I finally got my parking validated and signed out, and left, sore from my neck to my feet.

My Second Day

On my second day of volunteering, I decided to pull another eight-hour shift at the Dallas Public Library. I spent a good portion of the morning and afternoon moving another few thousand musical scores, and I was now up to twenty shelves free for more music. I spent the rest of the day sorting CDs into Dewey Decimal order, which usually involved a pre-sort into the number/decimal, then an alphabetical sort after that, simply because the sorting system is so complex. I broke up that task with a room pick-up, going around and picking up all the books, magazines, musical scores, reference books, videos, DVDs and CDs that the patrons of the library had left on the tables or on top of the shelves. And at the end of my shift, I spent an hour or so going through books in the back room, putting them in Dewey decimal order, and then placing them on carts for pages to put back on the shelves.

Day Three of Volunteering at the Library

On this day, I still owed the Dallas Public Library four more hours of volunteer work before I could get my library card. By now, everyone knew me and had seen my hard work, and was glad to see me! I started the day by sorting CDs again, then changed over to moving more scores, did another room pick-up, and finally, spent the rest of the day sorting books and CDs by Dewey decimal system again, filling up six shelves of books, and six shelves of CDs. I gave six and a half hours on this day to the library, because I wanted to finish up a significant portion of work for them, and I had seen how incredibly busy everyone who worked at the library was, was and how hard they worked. At last, the time came when I had done most of the work that was to be done that day, and gratefully signed out and went down to get my brand-new Dallas Public Library card. I certainly felt that I had earned the right to use the library's resources by that time!

Was It Worth It?

I discovered how difficult, both physically and mentally, it is to work for the library. There's no end to the work, because books, CDs, DVDs, and tapes keep being checked in, and that is desirable--it means that the library provides a worthwhile service. But hour after hour of the most menial work imaginable, performed mostly alone, day after day, sorting hundreds of books, CDs, DVDs, and other materials each and every day--I know I could not do it for a living!

I certainly have a new appreciation for the library, the librarians, and the staff who work so hard at the library to provide us with this incredibly valuable public service. I would encourage everyone to try volunteering at the library, if only to see how vital to the community our libraries are.

Don't tell anyone--but I had fun!
Don't tell anyone--but I had fun!

Be Valuable

  • Dress comfortably and be prepared for some very physically and mentally demanding work.
  • Understanding how the Dewey decimal system (or the Library of Congress system) works, as far as putting items in order, will make you very valuable because that will free up someone else for a task only a librarian can do (such as checking in materials or cataloguing new purchases).
  • Of course, follow all the library rules about being quiet!

What About You?

I would consider volunteering at my local library:

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