Voluntary Problems…

9 12 2010

I’ve been blogging less and less frequently recently, largely due to work, but also due to an increase in general apathy with the news. It isn’t that I’m not interested, it’s more that I see no need to write about it, especially when an old friend of mine is writing things much more eloquently over on the Paperback Rioter.

However, I do finally wish to end my blogging hiatus by writing about a growing problem for aspiring professionals such as myself. The problem is simple: volunteers.

Now I volunteer once a week at my local archives with the goal of gaining valuable experience which will benefit me in the long term. I have been doing this for 18 months or so and have picked up lots about how archives are run and what goes on ‘behind the scenes’. I have contributed to various projects during my time there and am being given larger projects to contribute to. Which is good for me.

However, the very large, and very frustrating catch-22 which has been created is that The Society of Archivists actively encourage volunteers. Of course, the advantage that this gives individual archives is that they have an unpaid work-source doing jobs which ought to be done by those employed within the profession. Volunteers sustain the archives. As a consequence therefore, the archives are then not going to employ somebody if they can have (such as in my case) at least four volunteers coming in and regularly completing tasks. The role of the volunteer is a huge, and still growing, one.

Volunteers pick up the slack somewhat, willingly completing the mind-numbingly boring tasks which the archivists and assistant archivists do not do. We do this because we think that this is giving us ‘valuable’ experience. I’m no longer sure. Do employers really want someone who can simply transcribe names from a census into a digital spreadsheet, for instance? It isn’t exactly hard, even allowing for some of the writing. It tells prospective employers nothing about my ability to do anything more than mundane tasks, which, lets be honest, monkeys with typewriters could do.

By actively encouraging volunteers though, the Society of Archivists is narrowing down an already small market into something almost impossibly hard to get into. There is a list on their website with various archiving institutions nationwide on. Last year this list included information about which institutions would take on trainees, apprentices and the like, in paid roles. This year the list has shrunk, and, by and large, details places which accept volunteers. The number of apprentice or trainee opportunities has fallen dramatically, a consequence, perhaps of the recession; but more likely, of the realisation that volunteers can maintain the industry whilst archives can get away with employing only a skeleton staff.

Tightening the belt, yes, I get, but pretty much blocking access to the sector? Really? For an industry concerned with maintenance for the future, this approach seems to have very obvious, and very negative consequences. This problem came to a head recently as I was invited to apply for a post with the local council by my archives on the back of my volunteering. When I asked for more information about the post, I was then told that I could not apply because I had a degree and was already employed. I do have a degree. It is in history, not archiving. I am employed, although officially not full-time, and in a minimum wage retail job, taken out of necessity. This meant I could not apply for the post, which sounded like a great practical opportunity.

So, I have to continue volunteering because my applications for jobs tend to get met with the response “lacks experience”. Through volunteering I am able to gain some experience, but I am also a free labour source for the archives, and therefore am providing them with no real incentive to create opportunities for young people to get into the sector. And those opportunities they do create I am not allowed to apply for because I already have a job. In something completely not related to archiving.

The system is broken by volunteers, but it is also sustained. The authorities need to work out a happier balance to this problem, or face being short of staff because it is simply too hard to get into the profession in future years. Of course they won’t solve this problem, and there will be consequences. It’ll be ok though, because volunteers will shoulder the burden of sustaining an incredibly detailed and complex profession.