Careers advisers often recommend volunteering as a way of gaining experience, filling in gaps in your experience, learning new skills, demonstrating an interest in the field, and getting started in a career. While at university, I did some volunteering in the student-run history duplicates library, later becoming a committee member with responsibility for publicity to attract new volunteers and increase library usage, as well as supervising two volunteers. This gave me useful experience to talk about in my first interview for a library position, as well as showing an interest in and commitment to the profession when I hadn't yet had any employment in libraries. So for me volunteering at the beginning of my career was a positive way of gaining experience, skills, getting my foot in the door and all the benefits that careers advisers are always talking about!
My first job post-qualifying was part time, and there were no other part time library positions around at the time to make up full time hours, so I did consider volunteering. However instead I successfully applied for an interesting part time job in an HR department outside of the library sector. I enjoyed this position and gained an awareness of people management issues, plus useful transferable skills, such as minute taking and budget administration. I was about to write that I haven't done any volunteering since gaining my library qualification, but then I realised that I have! My position as a committee member on my regional branch of the Career Development Group is unpaid, and done mostly in my own time. I only joined recently, but so far it has given me the chance to meet new people in other library sectors and I'm sure it will be a beneficial experience for me, as well as being a chance to contribute to the profession.
Volunteering can benefit the profession by providing volunteers with experience of new sectors, and opportunities to learn, which can help them further their careers as information professionals. The question of whether volunteering devalues the profession is an interesting and tricky one. A friend of mine who is studying law recently did an unpaid internship, and competed with other talented people for the opportunity. While I have little knowledge of the legal profession, it seems to me that volunteering of this sort is quite common, without devaluing the profession. Could volunteering in libraries be carried out in the same way, with people applying to volunteer for a set period of time, perhaps to work on a specific project or to gain all-round experience of a particular library sector? Maybe not, I don't know. Many of us just can't afford to work for free, but volunteering can be mutually beneficial for the volunteer and the library.