One of our brilliant library volunteers, Peter, took time out during this very difficult time to write the following piece sharing his own personal experience of volunteering for Brighton and Hove library services. Read his touching and eloquent story below:
I am a 58 year old American living in Brighton. I came here because I fell in love with a lovely Brightonian while visiting in London last spring. While here, I am doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Brighton.
To my surprise ‘Uni’, as you call it here, only met once a week during the fall semester so I found myself with lots of independent time to do my studies where I wished.
I have always loved libraries and I soon discovered Jubilee. What a treasure you have here! I love the open atrium. It happened that the day I first visited was some sort of special day and there were greeters there who helped me get an account. Since I live near the small, often unstaffed Westdene library branch, I was encouraged to get a Libraries Extra. In addition I learned about the electronic tools Borrow Box and RBDigital which are especially useful now. The cafe area is very nice and the communal seating has led to some nice conversations. On one of my first visits, although everyone around me was ensconced in their reading, I noticed a sign on the table that encouraged chatting. I gestured to my neighbors on either side of me and said “It says here we are supposed to talk”. The man to my left said, in a friendly way, ‘We’re English. We don’t talk.” I replied, “Well you can probably hear that I’m an American.” and, before we knew it, the three of us were having an active conversation. The man to my left had to leave after a bit as his lunch hour was over. I learned that my other neighbor was a semi-retired mathematician and we had a nice chat about his work and my nephew who also studied mathematics. I was also able to share with him an interesting article that had recently appeared in the excellent Quanta Magazine, which frequently covers mathematics.
In my second semester I am taking a Communities of Practice module which encourages writers to engage with their community. I had already considered volunteering at the library and this gave me the incentive to actually make it happen.
The process of becoming a volunteer was fairly straightforward and all of my dealing with Brighton & Hove library staff was efficient, professional, and friendly. My situation was a bit more complicated than most, due to the requirements of my university for a volunteer placement but the person at Jubilee was easy to work with and did the extra work to sign me up without complaint.
After communicating via email, I met for an interview at Jubilee. I am a retired software developer and very comfortable with technology so becoming a Library Connect volunteer to assist people with computers or phones seemed a natural fit.
After my reference was checked and I was accepted as a volunteer, I got the opportunity to ‘shadow’ one of the experienced Library Connect volunteers as he helped several people. I felt a bit as a novitiate being instructed by an older priest as he showed tremendous empathy to the people who had come to us for help. In some cases people needed quite straightforward help but in other cases their needs were connected to bigger events in their lives such as the need to apply for European Settled Status or to access their bank account after the death of a life partner. It became clear to me that the role had subtleties I had not appreciated and required sensitivity and discretion.
Finally, it came time for me to me begin my own first shift. I appreciated the trust I was given with access to the non-public parts of the library and a lanyard showing my status as an official volunteer. I looked in the appointment book and was happy to see that all three 45 minute sessions were booked. Less good, I was informed that the first person had cancelled. I was sitting at the Library Connect desk when, to my surprise and pleasure, a woman who had been working nearby asked if I could help. It turns out that the library is also used by the National Careers Service. The person who spoke to me was a Careers Advisor and her customer needed assistance uploading her resume to the job placement company Indeed. The customer had been out of work for more than 10 years after quitting to take care of her aged parents and another relative with cancer. She now wished to return to part-time work. To reacclimate herself to the workforce and get some recent experience she had been working in a charity shop. I was pleased to be able to assist her.
My next customer did not show up. Please don’t do this! It wastes volunteers time and prevents the slot from being used by someone else who needs assistance.
My third customer turned out to be very interesting and helpful to my own studies. She is an accomplished artist, playwright, and novelist with over a dozen published novels. Over the last few years she has been adapting some of her stage plays and novels to screenplays. I happen to be taking a screenwriting course at the moment so found working with her particular relevant. After our fruitful session we connected personally and I have now helped her edit three different plays. In the process I am learning from an accomplished writer. With the library now closed and my volunteering finished for now, it has been good to still be able to help someone who I met in the position.
Before the current pandemic shut things down I had the opportunity for two more sessions. In session number two, I was able to help an older woman set up a Gmail account, write an email to her son, and put names to telephone numbers in WhatsApp so she could better communicate with her extended family. Another client is a legally blind person who I was able to help by taking dictation of a letter to an incarcerated relative. I felt privileged to help this person with such a difficult circumstance.
In my third and final session before the shutdown I helped the widow of a former Cambridge Don research the life of a famous violinist from the reign of King George IV and helped another Brightonion create a Gmail account and use it. This last customer is an active volunteer in the community so I felt that he was getting a bit of good karma in return for his service.
All in all, my experience was very positive. It gave me a chance to meet people I wouldn’t ordinarily have had a chance to. I got a small taste of the wide variety of tasks that people are using these powerful, but sometimes confusing machines, for. Most importantly, it gave me a chance to give back a little to this community which is my new home and which has been welcoming to me. I look forward to when normal life resumes and I get to meet and help more of you.