Unpaid Internships: A Message from the Editor

Ashley Levine
Archivist/Digital Resource Manager
Artifex Press
Editor, SOLO

There is a looming paradigm shift in archival education and practice–the end of the  unpaid internship. Professionals in various archival settings are increasingly pushing back against this commonplace practice, which overwhelmingly devalues archives work. Archives, libraries, and cultural heritage institutions, however, often operate with limited resources, and cannot afford to pay interns. This issue of SOLO attempts to address the nuances of unpaid labor in archives, highlighting both positives and negatives. These posts should be viewed as an ongoing discussion needing more input from the Lone Arranger community. We welcome more feedback on the issue of unpaid internships,  whether it comes in the form of comments on these individual posts, or entirely new pieces submitted to me (alevine@artifexpress.com).


Thanks for reading this issue of SOLO!




Unpaid Internships: A Multifaceted Problem

Michelle Ganz, MILS CA
Archives Director
700 East Jefferson Street
Charlottesville, VA 22902
434.979.1111 office
434.284.0616 mobile

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.

An Unpaid Archives Internship in Late Career

Phyllis Ann K. Bratton
Director, Raugust Library
University of Jamestown
6070 College Lane
Jamestown, ND 58405
(701)252-3467, ext. 5433

I received my library degree in 1978. In 2010, I decided to return to work towards a degree in archives and records management, as my last great project before retirement is to organize our university archives from the ground up and I want to do it properly. My problems and experiences will be different from younger archivists, but reading others’ accounts, it becomes clear that most of the difficulties in each case revolve around trying to keep one’s life in balance.

In the summer of 2013, I proposed completing an unpaid internship at a university archives that is 100 miles from where I live and work. The archivists there graciously accepted me into their space, gave me my own project to work on, were extremely helpful with direction and advice, and accommodated my schedule.

Additional positives included that I lived with one of my daughters, who was a student at the university; since I was paying for her apartment anyhow, I felt no qualms about this! Also, as an assistant professor at my own institution, I was able to apply for and receive a summer sabbatical, so I continued to be paid while absent.

On the negative side were family concerns. Chief among these was trying to monitor and care for my chronically ill husband from a distance. Another was trying to organize my other daughter’s wedding, at an even greater distance and with an otherwise-occupied brain.

The biggest problem, however, is that I did not receive a full sabbatical. As the library director and only degreed librarian at our institution (yes, we are VERY SMALL), I was required to return to the library every Friday to do administrative work, as no one else could do it. This disrupted my project, but as noted above, the archivists were very kind about working with my schedule.

I finished my project, taking 19 huge and disorganized banana boxes full of records and reducing them to 21 organized boxes and a 26 page finding aid. I do not regret the time (which ran past the requirements of the class) or the work; it was well worth the effort. The archivists continue to answer my questions as I work through our collections here, and I feel that meeting them was one of the great benefits of the internship.

Jeanne Lowrey on Unpaid Internships

Jeanne Lowrey
Office of the President
Yale University

I am a bit unusual because the bulk of my pre-professional experience was paid. The few unpaid internships I held were part of school programs and class credit was offered. As a result, the financial burden was essentially equal to that of talking classes without internships.

I was fortunate to have attended an undergraduate institution with a thriving archives and strong program designed to help undergraduates gain practical work experience. I worked full time for two summers (as well as part time during the academic year), learning the foundations of archival practice before I had even decided that this was my career path or learned about abstract theory. Had this not been a paying job, this life-changing opportunity would have been inaccessible to me, and I’d likely have had to settle for a much less in-depth experience.

Additionally, my college job set me up with the skills I needed to find a rare, paid internship after I graduated. True, it was one day a week, and I juggled one to two other jobs simultaneously during that time. But that internship eventually became my first professional job, giving me a solid two years of professional experience prior to my post-grad school job search. These paid experiences enabled me to leave grad school with over five years of invaluable hands-on skills obtained in a variety of organizations.

As someone who has been a Lone Arranger for all of my professional career, I know how essential volunteer support is to accomplish institutional objectives. There are only so many hours in a week (especially if you are part time) and having extra hands can be so helpful. But to me, there is a big difference between a volunteer who is just looking to give back or help out, and someone who is serious about developing a professional portfolio. With volunteers, you try to teach them the basics, give them specific parameters so hopefully they will produce an end-product that is useful for your organization. They give what they can give, and you take what you can take. But someone interested in interning wants to go beyond the surface level, to broaden their knowledge of the field and archival work. A good intern will run with what they have learned and be able to do tasks that are essential but usually beyond the capability of a regular volunteer. With any luck, these skills the intern learns will serve them well as they advance in their career. If we do not fairly compensate interns for their work, we are signaling that their work does not have worth. It also is a sign that only people who can afford to work without pay are welcome in our profession.

Sometimes there is a bit of a grey area. Maybe someone interested in the field wants to volunteer just to get a sense of what archives are all about. Perhaps a professional or pre-professional volunteers for an archival organization because they are passionate about it and are willing to donate their time because they care about the cause and can bring a special skill set to the project. But these are either very short term or entirely self-selected projects. In these cases, the worker controls their interactions with archival institutions. If we accept that initiation into the archival profession requires unpaid labor that many people cannot afford, potential archivists no longer have that luxury. When it’s a decision between unpaid field experience and a paying job doing unrelated work to survive, there is really no choice.

Without paying archival work experience, I would not be where I am today. I would have had to postpone grad school for many years due to cost, delaying my ability to earn the degree I’d need to get a better paying job. I would not have been able to pay down my student loans. I would not have had the practical experience that made me stand out to my current employer. Being paid for my work from the start facilitated my entry into the archival world. It also assured me that yes, this is something I could make into a career, something worth investing in. I am beyond grateful that I was able to find employment in places that valued my work and compensated me for it to the best of their ability. But I strongly feel that my experience should not be the exception to the rule.

Unpaid Internships: A Message From The Chair

Deb Schiff
Chair, SAA Lone Arrangers

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.