This is a guest post by Gayle Schechter, SNAP Vice Chair.
This past spring, SNAP put out an informal survey to gather information from our community regarding their academic internship experiences. Though there is near-universal consensus that practical experience, often in the form of internships, is essential for students to build the necessary skills to enter the archival profession, in many cases, these internships are unpaid. In recent years, the subject of unpaid internships has become increasingly controversial across all professions. The conversation taking place on social media and across listservs often points out that unpaid internships are an enormous financial burden for many, and can serve as a gatekeeping practice for marginalized groups in our profession (1).
Last summer SAA Council put out a call for member comments to revise its publication, Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Archival Education (2). At the August 13th Council meeting, those comments were discussed. Council determined that the Best Practices document was “especially in need of revision” and assigned the task of reviewing and recommending revisions to the Graduate Archival Education Subcommittee of SAA’s Committee on Education (3). As we await the Subcommittee’s proposed revisions, SNAP’s recent survey can provide some context behind the controversy surrounding unpaid internships.
Overall, respondents tended to agree that their internships provided hands-on experiences that were essential to getting a paid job after graduation; however, many reported experiences where they were required to do busy work with little accountability from their educational institutions for internship supervisors. Others reported missing out on paid work, long commutes, and the financial burdens of unpaid internships (particularly having to pay high tuition fees for academic internships).
Some respondents noted that paying their schools the same tuition for an internship as they would for a standard academic course amounted to an undue burden. While the amount of administrative work schools put in to finding students required internships can vary from institution to institution, several respondents felt that schools should consider charging less per credit hour for an internship than they would for a standard course. This point of contention on course fees is indicative of a larger issue of academic institutions using tuition and fees from their graduate programs as a means to subsidize their undergraduate programs (4).
Though it is generally agreed upon that internships and related practical experiences are essential for students entering the archives field to build their knowledge, skills, and experience, we can’t ignore the fact that unpaid internships have continuously served as a barrier to our profession. We can’t ignore the fact that, for many, working for free in any capacity is not an option. We hope that SAA’s forthcoming revised Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Archival Education will reflect the need to reduce gatekeeping of the archives profession in the form of unpaid internships.
For those who will be attending this year’s Annual Meeting, SNAP and SAA’s Issues and Advocacy section are holding a joint business meeting on Saturday, August 3rd where we will be discussing creating and advocating for paid internships at our institutions.
We received 184 responses to our survey. Below is the summary of responses.
Q1. What kind of archives degree/certificate did you earn?
The majority of our respondents (131) earned some type of LIS-related Master’s degree (MS-LIS, MLIS, etc.), while 20 respondents earned a History Master’s, 14 earned an Information Systems Master’s, and 6 received either a History or LIS Certificate. 13 respondents chose “Other” to describe their degree or certification.
Q2. Did your program require an internship as part of your degree/certificate?
The majority of respondents were required to complete an internship as part of their formal archival education, with 125 responding “yes” and 59 responding “no”.
Q3. Did your program have a requirement that any internship done for academic credit must be unpaid?
The majority of respondents reported that no such requirement existed, with 61 respondents answering “yes”, 121 answering “no”, and 2 respondents abstaining from the question.
Q4. Regardless of whether your for-credit internship was financially compensated, did your program charge the same amount of tuition as they did for a standard course?
A resounding yes, with 172 respondents reporting they paid the same tuition for an internship as they did for a standard course, 10 responding “no”, and 2 abstaining.
Q5. If internships were optional in your program, did the financial burden of undertaking an unpaid internship prevent you from doing one?
19 respondents answered “yes”, the financial burden of an unpaid internship prevented them from taking one, 54 respondents answered “no”, but for the majority (111), this was non-applicable as internships were a requirement of their program.
Q6. Did you feel that your academic internship provided a comparative level of education compared to a standard graduate-level academic course?
The majority of respondents (87) reported that their internship experience provided an even higher level of education compared to their other courses, and 69 respondents reported that their internship experience provided a similar level of education to their other academic courses. 25 respondents felt their internship experience provided a lower level of education to their other courses, and 3 respondents abstained from the question.
Q7.Please use this area to elaborate on why you answered the way you did on any of these questions.
Notable comments from the survey:
“I think we need to talk about unpaid internships in the field generally, like, I’ve done more than 5 unpaid internships to get the experience I have, and that was a huge financial burden. Talk about how its almost required to take unpaid internships in order to build the experience required to get a paid internship even. Our field is exclusionary because only those who can afford to work for free can break into this field.”
“I completed 2 paid internships, which worked out to $13 per hour and $10.50 per hour respectively. I learned a lot, but wouldn’t have been able to partake if they were unpaid. Even at this low pay grade, it was a struggle and I had another part time job to supplement my income along with financial support from my husband. There were other internship opportunities with highly respected institutions available, but the fact that they were unpaid prevented me from accepting them.”
“I say my internship offered a higher level of education than any of my courses because it was a quality internship that let me learn through experience. I wasn’t stuck in a corner indexing newspapers or processing a low priority collection, I was able to partake in nearly every facet of archival practice. The internship was with a prominent performing arts organization in Pittsburgh. My peers who found paid internships at our school library system seemed to not be as satisfied with the work they were doing. Though unpaid, at 10 hours a week, it was worth it for me to commit to for a year.”
“My for-credit internship was a great hands-on learning and it also, more importantly, expanded my network in a way that is not possible in a traditional lecture-style course”
“My required (unpaid) internship during grad school emphasized rote technical work (scanning and tagging with LC subject headings) without questioning the underlying assumptions and structures guiding the approach. It seemed I was just doing busy work that other librarians/archivists were bored with.”
“While I was lucky that my internship provided more than some of my courses, not all are like that. Internships are largely self-regulated so there is no standard. Further, if an internship is required for a program and we are not allowed to be paid for the internship, the tuition should not be the same as a regular class, especially since many times contact with the professor is limited. Our professor is our internship, not the university. But, an internship needs to give the student something tangible in return (whether that be pay or course credit). I can’t tell my landlord he’s being paid in the experience of being my landlord so institutions should not be able to use that excuse. Unpaid internships that do not end in course credit or payment also limits the field to only the privileged. Poor people, disabled people, etc. don’t have the same ability to take an unpaid internship as someone who has more financial stability which limits the field as a whole. Libraries and archives should be leading in providing students with fair compensation for their work as we place so much emphasis on diversity and inclusion.”
“I was given a pile of photographs to sort. No original order, no intake form. I spent my internship sitting alone, putting the photos in manila folders based on theme or subject. I didn’t even make a finding aid. I had to use all of my sick and vacation time from work to take this internship, and it was a complete waste of my time. I didn’t learn anything about working in an archive.”
“There is no substitute for actual practice in the field and working side by side with a trained archivist. Working with actual collections also provided the opportunity to apply knowledge in diverse, real-world situations.”
“Though I do believe internships provide a wonderful space for learning *much* more practical (and arguably useful) practices in the profession, the added stress of commuting, communicating with internship supervisor(s), and coordinating around class schedules and the very necessary paid positions and jobs we need to get through grad school make unpaid internships less of a valuable learning experience in practice than they do in theory. For example, I had an internship that was a 2 hour commute (one way) twice a week. This was 8 hours a week I spent on buses and subways (plus the added 1+ hours of waiting for buses and subways all week), where it was often too crowded or bumpy to do homework or any of my other priorities. I had a great internship experience, but this commute made it very hard to justify the fact that I was paying tuition to my private university to have this experience (plus I was paying for commuting) while giving free labor to a well-off organization.”
“The hands-on experience was invaluable. My master’s classes were long-distance so I already felt very removed from the academic atmosphere – the internship was just what I needed to feel that the degree was worth the expenditures.”
“The internship definitely had the feeling of being cheap labor. There was very little mentoring or oversight. Often my supervisor was not even at the office. Furthermore, I never actually visited the site that holds the collections. Instead, I performed the processing work remotely. It wasn’t a good situation.”
“The hosting institution did not provide enough supervision and assigned projects that were too basic to provide rich learning opportunity”
“The internships I completed we’re great for gaining hands on experience, but coursework had the added benefit of explaining the theory and reasoning behind the work.”
“I believe, although in-class theory is important, that hands-on experience is superior to that learned in the classroom. It is completely unfortunate for students to pay an institution to work for free (as I had to for an internship / practicum) – for the same experience the student should be making time for outside the classroom in the first place.”
“I loved my internship site, but my supervisor was very hands-off. I don’t feel I learned anything from them directly. The work I did was self-directed.”
“The experience I gained during the internship was less than what I had already built through paid part-time jobs, and the on the job training I received at the internship was minimal.”
“In my field study I was able to get hands-on experience that none of my classes came close to providing.”
“I learned more in my internship than in most coursework. The skills and experience laid a solid foundation for further learning and helped get me a job with the institution after the degree was completed.”
“I really wish that the school had higher expectations of supervisors”
“I learned a lot about how the principles I had thought about in the classroom actually applied (or didn’t) in the real world.”
“For my master’s program, the department required an internship. My adviser and the graduate coordinator went out of their way to locate paid internships, but nothing was guaranteed. I was fortunate that I located a paid, part-time position, but some of my classmates were not so lucky. Even so, the internship did not pay for the cost of tuition for the course. I was literally paying to work this internship.”
“My program was a night, online-only program with a focus on Archival Studies. It had the option of work experience or a thesis in the final year, but I was able to use my job for this. Since most of us were working as para-pros in the program, it was important that we could use our work experience. Unpaid internships are theft.”
“being in an online program limited my access to hands on learning which my internship provided greatly.”
“I would just like to point out that the cost for internship was $4500 for a 3-credit 150 hour internship. Aid from the school did not apply over the summer term. To break even I would have had to be paid $30/hr.”
“Internships are IMPERATIVE in the archives field. Classroom learning isn’t enough. I completed 3 quarter-long internships. 2 were paid; I sacrificed forgoing pay on the third because it was at a prestigious museum where I desperately wanted experience. All of my internships helped inform my early career choices and were extremely beneficial to me. Now that I am an experienced supervisor, I refuse to supervise unpaid interns, even though people inquire about such opportunities regularly. I only take interns when my Library can afford to compensate them in some way.”
“Internship was not well-supervised or well-structured and was essentially data-entry. However, it did provide exposure to the field”
“My internship was honestly the most valuable part of my degree program, and it ultimately lead to a limited-term project position after I graduated. That said, it was galling to me that there was no tuition reduction: why did I have to pay my school when I was working on my own time, and not using any of the school’s resources?! An administrative fee, sure, fine, I would understand. But a full three-creditcourse worth of tuition just to have someone glance over a 2-page interim report and a 3-page final report?? It felt like a cash grab that I couldn’t escape, regardless of the positive outcome.”
“I am now a qualified archivist who regularly takes on unpaid interns. It is notable how little preparation they receive from their college. Some interns are outstandingly good because they have taken the time to prepare themselves. The college never checks in to see if they are getting good-quality instruction. Our institution gets no feedback from the college to say we should be offering different types of work, or more or less. The students pay the college over $1000 for the service we provide. There are no guarantees offered by the college that the experience will be worth the tuition.”
“During my internships I learned practical skills from professionals in the field, and had the opportunity to discuss with them how they applied archival theory to their daily work. None of this information was provided in my LIS coursework.”
“The internship experience is extremely valuable – how else are you going to get real world experience when just starting out and no job in the field? I assume that the time spent working during an internship is comparable or almost comparable to a full credit class. Mine was. There should not be a ton of homework on top of the internship. I was fortunate to be able to take an unpaid internship for class credit. I know not everyone can do that financially. If internships are required by schools, then perhaps tuition should not be charged (or decreased) for that particular class. This would place less of a burden and give students more opportunities who really don’t have the means to work in an unpaid capacity. I left a very competitive industry (entertainment) and chose libraries. Little did I know it would be just as hard to break in and with so little opportunity. The least library schools can do is make internships accessible to all – through stipends, relationship development with libraries, etc. Then perhaps the perceived value of paid staff will increase, rather than reliance on unpaid students. This will help organizations/the profession overall.”
“The internship has been valuable but having a mandated unpaid internship is untenable for me. I’m missing out on a paid day of work every week which means I’m making less money which makes my life more stressful which has a negative impact on my academic performance. I’m only required to put in 60 hours at the internship, I don’t think it would be too difficult to pay students for their labor or at least to charge less for the course as mentioned above. This practice just further isolates students who are struggling financially and is an unfair burden on those of us who are already working (and need to be working) full time.”
- David Z. Morris, “Are Unpaid Internships Exploitation or Opportunity? Twitter Has Some Opinions.” Fortune. July 8, 2018. http://fortune.com/2018/07/08/unpaid-internships-twitter-debate/
- SAA Council, “Call for Member Comment: Best Practices for Internships & Best Practices for Volunteers in Archives.” Society of American Archivists. https://www2.archivists.org/news/2018/call-for-member-comment-best-practices-for-internships-best-practices-for-volunteers-in-ar
- SAA Council, “Council Meeting Minutes.” Society of American Archivists. August 13, 2018. https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/0818-1CouncilMinutes_AsApproved100118_0.pdf
- Jon Marcus, “Graduate programs have become a cash cow for struggling colleges. What does that mean for students?” PBS. September 18, 2017. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/graduate-programs-become-cash-cow-struggling-colleges-mean-students