I have now finished my summer placement at the small religious archive. As with many small archives, it suffers from having a terribly small budget which forces all sorts of stop-gap measures. One of these measures is the use of volunteers. This is a difficult subject for a professional. I would like to see (or at least see it throughly discussed) some kind of archives college or society, similar to a College of Surgeons, to license archivists in the same way that physicians and lawyers are regulated.
As I see it, one can make quite a good argument that permitting volunteers undermines the professional archivist. The argument against volunteers is that it devalues the skills and education of archivists (i.e. if I can train a volunteer to do 50% of the tasks at the archive in 2 weeks, why the hell did I spend two years during an archives Master's degree), it undermines arguments for reasonable compensation (e.g. if I can get a volunteer to do most of your job for free, then why should I hire you for $50,000 a year plus benefits?), and so on. On the question of status, I worry that having a volunteer (especially if they work in an important capacity) could imply that archival work is little but a hobbyist activity.
The argument in favour of permitting volunteers to work in an archive is a mix of pragmatic concerns and archival PR. If planned properly, having volunteers can raise the profile of a given archive and raise public awareness of same. Pragmatically, some tasks could be offloaded onto volunteers are effectively no cost. I think these are some of the reasons that public libraries so readily accept volunteers. Indeed, back in my high school days, I volunteered at the local public library (before it became mandatory in my province) and it eventually help me land my first job there.
What's the thinking out there on volunteers in archives? Only in small archives and then under certain conditions? I'm certainly curious to find out what others think about this issue.