Unpaid Internships: A Multifaceted Problem

Michelle Ganz, MILS CA
Archives Director
McDONOUGH INNOVATION
700 East Jefferson Street
Charlottesville, VA 22902
434.979.1111 office
434.284.0616 mobile
http://www.mcdonough.com

Internships are an important part of archival education, and often the only way students get real-world experience. My graduate school program only offered 2 elective courses on archives that were offered in alternating years (making it very difficult to take both depending on when you started the program). Obviously two courses cannot cover the breadth of archival education so at that time internships/practicums were the only way to get into an archives as a student. These were courses we signed up for, received credit for, and were graded on (usually on a pass/fail scale). The work done in these internships was appropriate for resumes and counted towards the experience requirement to sit for the ACA certification exam.

Once I moved from student to Lone Arranger I wanted to make sure that interns walked away with practical knowledge and theoretical foundations of archival practice. My internships were structured to maximize what the students got out of the experience. But packing more instruction into an internship still isn’t a replacement for financial compensation. The best I could do for my interns was offer letters of reference, job search help, a couple of lunches throughout the semester, and baked goods. These are poor substitutes for actual money, but the alternative was to offer no internship opportunities for students; this is hardly an appropriate alternative. I never really thought much about their compensation. In hindsight I should have been more aware of how taking an internship could have impacted my interns; I always took interest in how their lives were doing outside of school. It never occured to me to ask if the internship was negatively impacting them. It was my responsibility to ask, and in that sense I failed my interns.

As the landscape of archival education evolves to archives-track MLIS programs the idea of internships has also changed. Internships are no longer a basic part of the educational process. Employers have turned to unpaid internships in lieu of hiring professional archivists or archival assistants; skirting the ethical line of using volunteers or unpaid labor instead of properly compensated professionals. Internships seem to have moved out of the educational sphere and into the working world where entry level jobs have been reclassified as unpaid internships. In addition to being grossly unethical this blurred line has catastrophic and long-reaching implications. Internships, by definition, work on the trade-school model of giving students a chance to apply the theory learned in the classrooms and see if archives is the track for them. Asking MLIS/MIS/MLS holding professionals to accept a job without pay is insulting and cheapens the profession as a whole. To be perfectly honest, it never occured to me that interns should be paid until I started paying attention to what new professionals were saying. As the people administering internships it is our obligation to push for change.

Interns deserve to be paid for the work that they do, and the government is starting to agree. For-profit institutions have moved to a pay model to keep ahead of changing regulations.  Academic institutions need to follow suit. Course credit isn’t acceptable when people are having to choose between taking the unpaid internship or going to a job unrelated to archives, but pays the bills. Many academic institutions provide students with a variety of scholarships and alternative funding options to cover costs while completing an internship. But this places the onus of responsibility on the students, not the archives, where the responsibility actually lies. Supporting and advocating for new professionals is a fundamental part of sustaining our profession. And funding needs to be part of your advocacy agenda and part of your strategic goals.

And in a perfect world this would not be an issue. But the reality of archival budgets is that there is no extra money, or time to apply for money, leaving archivists trying to provide internships without paying for the interns. Cutting funds from other areas like supplies to free up funds for internships is often not possible; either because there isn’t enough money for the things we have to buy or because it’s not possible to move funds from one budget line to another. The SAA has taken the correct position that all interns need to get paid. Use the SAA’s Best Practices for Internships and the current literature as a way to support your proposal to pay interns. It is clear that we are moving to a paid internships standard and we need to start budgeting for interns like any other archival budgetary line item. We need to seek out grant funding, endowments, and alumni-supported funds. We need to include intern funding as part of our advocacy plans.

Clearly there is no simple answer and we certainly can’t find a solution in a blog. Like all of the archival problems we grapple with the real answer is a multifaceted approach. I have spent years mulling this issue and have yet to come up with a blanket solution. Every institution and repository needs to approach this issue with real forethought and a willingness to address this on an institutional and budgetary level. The important thing is to keep the conversation moving forward and continuing to push for funding for interns and internships.

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