After attending an OU Students Association Conference in Milton Keynes in 2018, I wanted to get more involved with the Association, as it really enhanced the sense of belonging. However, being an international student it was almost impossible for me, as it meant travelling to the UK, which I could not combine with my full-time job.
So, when the Association started advertising online volunteering roles in 2019, I immediately decided to apply. That is how I became an Online Archive Cataloguer, an Online Meet-Up and Event Host and a Library Study Volunteer. This article will be about my role as a Library Study Volunteer (LSV).
The Open University (OU) has been providing education to students in prison for over 40 years.(1) Since the 1970s, the Students in Secure Environments (SiSE) programme has spread to over 150 prisons and 50 secure hospital units.(2) Most of these students do not have access to a computer and/or the internet and can therefore not access the OU Library. Consequently, they cannot do independent research for their assignments and assessments themselves. That is how the Library Study Volunteer scheme came to life in early 2019. In the beginning, it was restricted to SiSE studying at Level 3, but was extended to students studying at Level 2.(3)
For the academic year 2018-2019, 1800 students were in secure environments. 14% were studying an access module, 17% were studying in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS), 19% in the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL), 19% in the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and 31% in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS).(4)
The students make a written research request through their Education Officer, which is then forwarded to the OU Students Association.(5) Library Study Volunteers receive the requests through a dedicated forum. We do not have direct contact with the students and we do not know who they are. The only information we have is their PI number and module code for administrative purposes. The students do not know who the volunteers are either. Once we receive new requests, it is up to us to select which requests we will work on. We are expected to complete a request within 10 days. However, our average turnaround is 5 days.(6)
Requests can vary considerably in length, from one requested resource to multiple pages of requested resources. When a request is rather long, it sometimes happens that several volunteers work on the request, really making it a team effort. The subject of the requests can also vary, depending on which modules the students are studying. As volunteers, we research a lot of different topics, which are not necessarily related to our own studies. For example, I did research for students doing economics, management, politics, music, environmental studies, sport and exercise psychology, literature, philosophy and French studies, while I am a Law student myself. I tend to stay away from requests related to mathematics and physics, as I would be doing students a disservice if I were to take those requests. We also do research for postgraduate students and PhD students.
The type of resources can vary as well, for instance journal articles, ebooks, websites, reports, newspaper articles, etc. Sometimes, students know exactly what they are looking for and will give us specific information regarding the requested resources. However, it also frequently happens that students only give us general information about what subject and what type of resource they are looking for. It is then up to us as volunteers to find relevant resources for the student. Occasionally, we need to make a choice of what we think would be the most helpful resources for the student with the information that we have at our disposal.
As Library Study Volunteers, we receive help and support from the OU Library staff. We have a dedicated forum where we can ask librarians for assistance when we cannot find a specific resource or when the OU does not have access to the requested resource or journal. The librarians are always very helpful and will do everything they can to try and find the resource or find an alternative that could be helpful for the student. Before starting our role as LSV, we also receive training from OU librarians about how to research and regarding copyright as we need to take that into account.
Once we have completed a research request for a student, we need to fill out a completion form and send it to the warehouse by email. Warehouse staff will then print the resources we found and send everything to the student.
At the time of writing, 373 requests have been completed with over 1600 resources sent to students.(7) After two years with the scheme, I completed 50 requests with 376 individual resources sent. I am now in my third term of being a Library Study Volunteer, which probably makes me one of the longest-serving LSV. Recently, new Library Study Volunteers were recruited and some are still finding their way. Whenever they have questions, I try to help by giving them advice and sharing my experience. We also receive a lot of support from the OU Students Association EDI and Student Welfare team, as they are in charge of the LSV scheme.
The reason why I decided to apply for the role of LSV is because I think it is commendable that people in prison are trying to turn their life around by studying with the OU and I wanted to offer my support through this volunteering opportunity. Having done this role for a little over two years now, I find it very rewarding being able to help students in secure environments. And, as a bonus, I considerably improved my own research skills, which I put to good use for my studies.
(1) The Open University (nd), Supporting Students in Secure Environments. Available at: https://www.open.ac.uk/secure-environments/ (Accessed 13 November 2022).
(2) The Open University (nd), Supporting Students in Secure Environments. Available at: https://www.open.ac.uk/secure-environments/ (Accessed 13 November 2022).
(3) The Open University Library (nd), Collaboration with the OU: Providing library resources to Students in Secure Environments, in The Hoot. Available at: https://thehootstudents.com/providing-library-resources-to-students-in-secure-environments/ (Accessed 13 November 2022).
(4) OU Students Association (2020), Training session for Library Study Volunteers, Presentation Library Support Volunteers, January 2019.
(5) OU Students Association (2022) Training session for Library Study Volunteers, Presentation Library Study Volunteers, September 2022.
(6) OU Students Association (2022) Training session for Library Study Volunteers, Presentation Library Study Volunteers, September 2022.
(7) OU Students Association, Forum Library Study Volunteers New Requests (Accessed 30 November 2022). See also, OU Students Association (2022) Training session for Library Study Volunteers, Presentation Library Study Volunteers, September 2022.