Hands restoring an old book

For the love of books: Maggie McElhill on the wonders of volunteering

8 May 2023
Meet the volunteer helping to keep the Book Fair well-stocked.
When Maggie McElhill retired from her role in the Faculty of Science, she was looking for somewhere to donate her time. As a former librarian, the Book Fair felt like a natural fit.

Maggie McElhill was a Book Fair customer long before she started volunteering, so when she decided to retire from her role as Committee Officer in the Faculty of Science, the Book Fair seemed like a good fit.

“I joined the Chancellor’s Committee in November 2021, which makes me a latecomer among more than 115 members who have been volunteering for many years,” she says. “I had been impressed by the Book Fair when I bought a few titles in the mid-20-teens. My original profession was a librarian, so I felt very comfortable around books and managing book issues.”

Maggie McElhill surrounded by boxes of book donations smiling up at the camera

As a former librarian, Maggie felt volunteering at the Book Fair was a natural fit.

The Book Fair takes place in the Great Hall over five days in the second week of September. The Book Room Convenor coordinates a team of 32 volunteers from the Chancellor’s Committee to run the Burren Street Book Room. They spend the year processing the thousands of book donations received from the community leading up to the main event.

Maggie is the Book Fair Convenor, but she also works the Monday morning shift in the Book Room helping to sort through fresh donations. She enjoys the social aspect of the work – particularly when the team is surrounded by a treasure trove of books as conversation starters.  

Maggie McElhill sitting on a table with her fellow Book Room volunteers working in the background

Team effort: Maggie also volunteers her time in the Book Room, helping to sort books before the Book Fair in September.

“We have opinions we’re not afraid to use!” she says. “Our volunteers are generally older and retired after long working lives and there is always something new to be shared. There is always a book at hand to prompt another discussion which often ends in a loud laugh!”

Volunteering has also given Maggie the opportunity to see members of the University’s student body in action. Her favourite memory of the 2022 Book Fair came when 58 members of the Sydney Motorsports and University of Sydney Rocketry Teams volunteered to assist in the set up and running of the event. The teams had both been successful in their application to the Chancellor’s Committee for funds for their projects, and, though their awarding was merit based, were keen to show their appreciation.

As anyone who has ever tried to move house can attest, moving mountains of books is physically demanding work. Luckily, when the students arrived early on Thursday morning, they were ready to work. Maggie was in awe of their efficiency.

“Within a short period of time, both teams had self-organised and had a workflow in place delivering an endless stream of boxes to our volunteers. They then helped them to unpack the books and fill up 118 trestle tables,” she says.

Book Room volunteers reviewing an old copy of a book over the work table

Janet Oakley and Lydia Bushell discuss the French translation of a donated book. Volunteers restore older books and search out their provenance prior to sale.

“They also found a solution to help deliver fresh stock to the tables throughout the five days of the Book Fair. We could not have asked for more support from them.”

Though her work as the Book Fair Convenor has been widely praised by her peers, Maggie prefers to celebrate her fellow volunteers.

“I hope it doesn’t sound trite, but I think it is about having a space in your life where you can be selfless and without ego,” she says. “You volunteer to meet a need which is unlikely to be addressed if unpaid time and energy is not given freely. You are not in it for the kudos.”

Her advice for those looking for a way to give back is to find roles that best align with your personal values.

“There is a plethora of volunteering openings available and it is an opportunity to be guided by your heart rather than what is in it for you.”

The 2023 Chancellor's Committee Book Fair will be held 9-13 September, 10 am - 4 pm.

Keen to get involved? You can find out more about our volunteering opportunities on the Volunteer with us page.