Gavia Libraria

On internships in LIS

The Loon once during a standard every-semester advising appointment had an advisee rather truculently tell her, “I’ve been working in libraries for {large-number} years, and running one for {smaller number}. I’m not planning to change jobs. Why do I have to do this internship? What will I get out of it?”

Not generally one to discourage criticality in her students, the Loon cordially answered, “Good question! Is there any aspect of your job you would like to work toward greater comfort with?”

Just as truculently, “No. I can do it all.”

“Excellent.” The Loon paused a moment, so as not to turn the conversation poisonous by peppering the advisee with rapid-fire questions. “Well, how about this: what do you think your library will be doing in three to five years that it is not doing now?”

“Oh. Huh.” A mere five seconds’ pondering, and the advisee spontaneously and without the least hint of truculence suggested no fewer than three internship possibilities useful to the small-town library’s anticipated trajectory. The Loon hid a beaky smile while endorsing all three suggestions, and the appointment ended entirely amicably.

If this picture flatly contradicts the narrative in which LIS educators are blackhearted black-pencil-mustachioed villains gleefully rubbing their hands together and chortling as they evilly plot to rob their students of time and money with otiose internships to which educators contribute nothing… the Loon is quite satisfied.

Well, no, she isn’t, to be fully honest. If the Loon ruled the world, purveyors of the said narrative would be uncordially but most sincerely invited to saltate into the deepest portion of the nearest substantial body of water, never to emerge therefrom. What a false filthy farrago of festering bile that narrative is.

As always, the Loon does not pretend to speak for the entirety of LIS education, not least because LIS education certainly does not wish her to do so. She also does not pretend that her sense of how things are and why they are that way in her own workplace is the one true and complete explanation. She can say with respect to this specific question, however, that she has been studying how her workplace runs internships for some time, because chances are a fair whack above zero that some associated responsibilities will land on her feathered back in three to five years.

Why require internships?

These are the (largely unspoken and unwritten) axioms the Loon and (she believes) her workplace hold to be true:

  • Information organizations often flatly refuse to hire graduates without the magic words “library” or “archives” or “historical society” in their list of prior work. Some entrants to LIS programs already have the magic words. Most do not.
  • Information organizations sometimes refuse to hire graduates whose only recommenders are LIS faculty. At least one available recommendation from a working professional is prudent.
  • Many students know these things and behave accordingly. Some don’t. Some assume (wrongly, of course) that high GPA and a known school name compensate for zero experience; these Dunning-Krugers are the most likely to skive off internships if their school does not require them.
  • Not all students can successfully arrange career-related internships or jobs for themselves. The less white, cis, urban, and wealthy they are, the more difficult they are liable to find it. Privileged students discommoded by an internship they judge unnecessary is a vastly lesser evil than less-privileged students never gaining experience they must have to get hired because the school does not take it upon itself to ensure opportunity.
  • Not all so-called internships are worth the powder to blow them up. Some so-called professionals think nothing of ordering an intern to move boxes or make coffee all day. Other so-called professionals are straight-up creepers. (The Loon wishes she did not have direct experience with such folk, but she does.) Others fear or resent novelty and change sufficiently to discourage the hardiest, most idealistic student (an intern would be placed with the author of this dismissive hateful stereotyping bushwa only over the Loon’s dead and rotted corpse). Still others subscribe to new-hire messianism such that what they meditate asking an intern to do would be wildly unrealistic in an internship’s timespan even for the most seasoned professional.

    (The Loon is often referred “please make us a database!” requests from information organizations. She rejects nine out of ten of these, usually because the organization does not actually need a relational database or could not possibly maintain one, sometimes because their sense of scope is so out-of-whack that the database they think they want is an entire e-resource management system, or in one hideously memorable case, practically an entire DAM system.)

  • Not all paid paraprofessional jobs do much to improve professional-level skills. We cannot prevent a library or archives hiring a student to move boxes and make coffee, after all.
  • Not all workplaces and professionals, even well-intentioned ones, know how to mentor new professionals well. Guidance, support, and expectations management are useful, and can even be appreciated.

We also have direct evidence we rely on:

  • Feedback from graduates on the internship experience is quite positive; the further they are into their careers, the more gratitude they tend to express. Not a few spontaneously tell us that their internship played a key role in getting them hired for the first (or even not the first!) time.
  • Feedback from employers, when we had occasion to ask them recently, was unanimous: require an internship, they said.

Why unpaid internships?

We resent them also (the Loon has weighed in at least once). Where paid internships are completely forbidden, look for prohibition thereof above the level of the LIS faculty, and do believe that LIS faculty are fighting the prohibition as hard as ever they can. The closer the LIS department’s supervising unit is to the local humanities establishment, the more likely such prohibitions are to exist. (This is not praise for the humanities, to be sure.)

That said, for distance students in relatively rural or poverty-stricken areas particularly, or for students with major temporal or geographic constraints, unpaid may be the best anyone can do. It is far from ideal, but a lesser evil than letting a graduate into the harsh job market with zero experience on the résumé.

What labor do LIS educators contribute to internships to justify the monetary cost to students?

(The Loon will elide a longstanding small-cohort internship program in a specific niche of librarianship, and another niche that for reasons of a specific local certification process must take their internship course in a different department. Edge-case logistics we shall have always with us.)

At the Loon’s workplace, two faculty members share the job of managing internships; a part of each one’s time (exactly how much the Loon is unsure, but she would guess 10-15%) is dedicated to this in their job descriptions. (Nominally one handles local-to-the-school internships while the other manages distance internships, but the Loon has observed this boundary going fuzzy; it may yet disappear altogether.) They trade back and forth the classroom component of the internship course, which involves:

  • significant reading and discussion aimed at workplace socialization (also known as the “how could they let someone graduate not knowing how to dress/write a memo/run a meeting?” problem) and to a lesser extent leadership development
  • a discrete outreach-related product, usually a video or a conference-quality poster
  • guided reflective writing and discussion of their experience; those who robot through an internship learn little from it, the Loon has found
  • a safe place to raise, discuss, and one hopes (with classmate and instructor input) resolve workplace issues—sometimes issues that a student will not realize are issues, but classmates or a seasoned educator will

The classroom component is not, shall we say, universally popular among students; opinion appears to divide into a sharp bimodal curve. The Loon’s sense is that like the internship itself, the classroom component serves best those who need it most, and for that reason she believes in it. Should it ever fall in her lap she will certainly appraise and try to improve it, however. She does that with all her courses; why would this be any different?

Running the classroom is the least of the work involved in managing internships, however. Finding opportunities, evaluating them, making matches, and monitoring in-progress matches eats by far the lion’s share of the Loon’s two colleagues’ allotted time. In any given semester, internships must be set up for roughly one-sixth of the currently-enrolled student population (though the numbers swing quite widely here). Some can be accommodated via longstanding partnerships with people and organizations we have reason to trust to give students a valuable experience, useful feedback, and a solid recommendation. These run through our well-worn process: student and supervisor meet over a worksheet we provide to establish projects, project goals, and learning outcomes for the internship; the worksheet then comes back to the appropriate internship coordinator for edits as needed (neither of the Loon’s colleagues is shy about suggesting or even demanding these) and final approval.

Some students find their own opportunities. The Loon’s colleagues do not, however, accept these sight unseen; they contact the intended supervisor to explain our internship goals and procedures and assess the suitability of the proposed internship. If the situation passes this sniff test, the student and supervisor go through the worksheet exercise. Typically these require an extra round or two of feedback from the Loon’s colleagues due to the supervisor’s inexperience with mentoring and setting learning objectives.

A few—more commonly distance students—cannot be accommodated in either of these fashions, which means the Loon’s colleagues spend a lot of time cold-calling/cold-emailing possibilities, as well as people in their professional networks who might know of possibilities. Failure is not an option. An internship must be found for every student, no matter what it takes.

Every semester, practically without exception as best the Loon can tell, one or two in-progress internships explode messily, for a bewildering variety of reasons often not under anyone’s control. (Humans. Such untidy animals.) The Loon’s colleagues are naturally responsible for whatever damage control needs doing, and whatever needs to happen to ensure that the student gains as much as possible from the internship. Obviously such situations cost all concerned time and effort. More often but less time-consumingly, an internship starts to go off the rails but can be nudged back on-course.

When internships are complete, the Loon’s colleagues converse at not-insignificant length with each internship supervisor about the student’s performance, so that the student can be graded. (This cannot be left entirely to internship supervisors, some of whom are overoptimistic, others of whom, try how we may to exclude them, are overcritical or outright vindictive.) They also read written progress reports and reflections from the students and figure those into the final grade.

If this still seems insufficient labor to warrant tuition, the Loon does not know what to tell you.

Couldn’t some students place out of the internship?

This is a reasonable question. Students with no résumé-worthy experience in information environments should be entirely ineligible to do this; the professions’ distaste for such applicants is that strong. The Loon would also be inclined to scrutinize fairly closely experience adduced as a reason to place out of the internship; if it amounts to moving boxes and making coffee, it should be considered inadequate to bypass the internship.

The Loon would consider setting up a procedure for those whose experience passes such scrutiny, given authority to do so. Off the top of her feathered head—and please do make other suggestions in the comments—she thinks the procedure would involve at minimum a job talk and a rather lengthy mock(ish) job interview involving lots of “what would you do in situation X?” and “explain experience you have with skill/environment/software/situation Y” questions, which are exactly the questions jobs and internships (rather than classwork) tend to provide grist for answering. A student who aces such an interview might well be better served acquiring or honing a different set of skills.

The Loon’s very strong sense, however, is that far fewer library-school students would ace this interview than think they would, and far fewer working professionals would have aced this interview when they were in library schools than think they would have.

How can working professionals help prevent exploitation of unpaid interns?

Two methods spring immediately to mind: offer paid internships, and hire new graduates without experience on the entry level.

A last thought

Would it hurt anyone to phrase questions like this in some measure of good faith? To assume that at least some LIS educators like and value our students, see them as more than currency units, and genuinely want them to do well?

The Loon is inexpressibly weary of the usual gotcha-style “have you stopped exploiting your students?” phraseology. If the Loon thought she were exploiting her students, above and beyond the sometimes-exploitative structures the Loon must work within, she would quit her much-loved job on the instant.

One thought on “On internships in LIS

  1. Christina Pikas

    Thank you for this. TBH, from the outside – not having taken the opportunity to take one of these internships – I had no idea there was so much involved. I think even with a less through program it is, as you say, what the student makes of if. The funny thing is anyone ever accusing LIS people of being in anything for the money. Really? so that’s why we picked this profession :)