Reflections on a Volunteer Experience

I started volunteering with the McCaw Foundation Library at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in October of 2007. Since then I’ve applied to, attended, and graduated from, the University of Washington’s Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) program. These two experiences have been intertwined from the start.

When I realized library science was the degree I wanted to pursue I knew volunteer experience would be extremely helpful in both learning some basics before school and also convincing the school that I was serious about my intentions. It turned out that the McCaw Foundation Library was the perfect place to do that. The McCaw Foundation Library has approximately 20,000 books and 120 journal titles on Asian art in six languages.  Being a research library, it serves the curators and staff of the museum, as well as students, scholars and the general public. The Library is open to the public Thursday 1-8pm, Friday and Saturday 1-5pm.

I started working two three-hour shifts a month during the public hours and knew that this wasn’t enough time to learn everything I wanted to learn. Picking up extra shifts at the beginning allowed me to further explore the art in the museum as well as the materials in the library’s collection, how the library is used by staff and the general public, what the role of the museum librarian is, and to further understand what exactly the librarian does. Having never worked in a museum library before there was a lot I didn’t know about. I learned about the responsibilities of the librarian, from processing books, collection development, and volunteer recruitment and training, to providing reference services through email and in person, collaborating with staff from across the museum and creating book installations for the library. By spending time in the library I slowly understood these different aspects to librarianship.

Besides understanding the basics of librarianship through the work, I was able to learn a lot through Jie Pan, the associate librarian. Jie (herself a MLIS graduate from UW) was incredibly influential in my decision to apply to graduate school and throughout school became a mentor, offering advice and endless support. I also built great relationship with other twelve volunteers coming from five different countries through these years. I started school in Fall 2008 and the library was very flexible with me taking time off during busy quarters though I always tried to stick to the two Thursday night shifts I had originally been given. During my last quarter at UW, which just ended in June, I was able to complete a directed fieldwork or internship at the library. I volunteered 100 hours during 10 weeks and worked on cataloging audio-visual materials, updating volunteer manuals, hosting volunteer training session, and weeding parts of the collection for the SAM Libraries Bi-annual Book Sale event. This experience cemented in my mind how important the library is as a part of the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s collections and how important libraries are in museums. Staff used the library frequently and patrons consistently wandered in and were impressed by the library. Many patrons have questions or are curious about certain things after viewing the art or going to a lecture and the library is a great place for them to vocalize and poke around for answers.

Sadly the end of Spring Quarter is also the end of my three-year volunteering at the McCaw Library. Today I find myself in Washington D.C. starting a summer internship at the Library of Congress and looking forward to finding something more permanent on the east coast in the fall. But Jie and other volunteers’ friendships and support is deeply treasured and I’m sure our paths will intersect again.

Greta Kuriger, SAM Volunteer