Unpaid Internships: A Message From The Chair

Deb Schiff
Archivist
Chair, SAA Lone Arrangers
debra.schiff@gmail.com

When SOLO editor Ashley Levine asked me to write about my experience with unpaid internships, I thought about a number of things, including the privilege associated with programs requiring students to have unpaid internships. I also recognize my own great privilege in being someone who, thanks to a variety of circumstances, could afford to take unpaid internships during my MLIS. But first, let’s go back to a time when I was paid for an internship.

In 1989-1990, I was a Communications major at William Paterson University (College, then), studying radio, TV, and film. My internship at the brand new CNBC studios in Fort Lee, NJ paid $75 per day. Interesting historical fact: To equip CNBC, NBC reused the audio and video equipment employed to broadcast the previous Olympics. I could still see some of the mic labels on the audio engineering boards.

I operated a camera during the early morning show (Neil Cavuto was a young unknown and Kathleen Campion was the star) and supported the audio department (think mic-ing folks like Morton Downey and Dick Cavett, and their guests). It was as hands-on an experience as one could have as an intern, and after the internship ended, I was hired part-time until I completed my degree. I was very fortunate to have gotten the internship, importantly to see another woman working as a professional audio engineer. In the NYC area at that time, we were rare.

Fast-forward to 2009-2010, after careers in technical publishing and corporate communications, I sought an MLIS at nearby Rutgers University. I took internships and independent studies primarily because I couldn’t get as much hands-on experience as I wanted in the program. My first unpaid internship was at the Zimmerli Museum, on campus. It’s a great museum with the world’s largest collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art.

Working in the Registrar’s office, I chased down “missing” artworks in administrative offices and learned how to deaccession a collection of works on paper. The collection contained original artworks designed to accompany Bell Telephone bills. They were paired with short blurbs, often about historical information. These works no longer fit the collecting policy of the museum (my first experience with a collecting policy, too!), and were destined for the NJ Historical Society. However, the Society was closed due to budgetary concerns. The materials would stay with the Zimmerli until the Society reopened. In that experience, I also learned a great deal about art handling and preservation techniques, and condition reporting that I still use today.

I also took an unpaid internship at the Plainfield Public Library (NJ) in the Local History Department. My boss, Sarah Hull, head of Local History, gave me a host of great opportunities to practice everything I had learned, and to learn many new skills as an archivist. I worked with collections that had everything from architectural drawings to wedding gowns. The mentorship I received provided an important foundation for how I approach newer archivists and volunteers today. After I completed that internship, I volunteered at the library for a time. Later, I was written into grants for several years (part-time).

I’m not in favor of unpaid internships. Just because that’s what I experienced, it’s not what I expect others to do. Frankly, if my circumstances were different, I likely would not have been able to afford to stay in this field. At the end of the day, I gained a great deal of experience that I use and teach to others. I can only hope that more funding becomes available for the current generation of student archivists, librarians, and museum professionals to take the internships that will prepare them for their future careers.