by Rebecca Crago, Head Editor, INALJ Virginia
Perspectives on Internships and Volunteering
from a Sole-Staffer
I am scheduled to speak at MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference) coming up in Erie, PA (my hometown!) on April 25-27, regarding volunteer efficacy from the standpoint of a small institution. And boy, as a solo-librarian and archivist who manages a closed stack facility open to the public 30 hours a week, let me just say I have A LOT to talk about.
After agreeing to present, I’ve been reading discussions on blogs and listservs regarding volunteerism and internships as a means for recent graduates and those still enrolled to get their feet wet, and I must say I was disheartened to hear some of the attitudes reflected by the majority of participants in these discussions.
To summarize, many (thankfully not all) interns and volunteers seemed unhappy with their experience. They felt they were given tasks that no staff person likes to do, and considered themselves doing the dirty work. They felt, at least, that they should be paid to do the work assigned to them. After all, many were paying tuition for their internships in return for school credit, and internships take time away from making money at jobs. However, I think many commentators missed the bigger picture: paying tuition to get school credits for an internship is optional.
From the discussion I sensed that students were overlooking the fact that internship host sites are essentially providing a service to the student and the school. Do they get a return on their investment, so to speak? In some cases, yes, but in many scenarios, the time it takes to train and supervise a person with no experience doesn’t outweigh the amount and quality of work produced, especially when the extent of that relationship is a few months time.
It very well may be the case that some interns’ experiences border or cross the unethical boundary, in which they are given tasks that don’t provide them with experience they desire to add to their repertoire. However, as sole-staffer in a small institution, I don’t get to do the things that led me to pursue this career all that often. In this economy, you have to put in the time before you start to see a return on your educational investment.
While I completely agree with many participants in the discussion that it would be ideal to provide compensation, it is highly unlikely that a small institution (or large) has the funds to hire enough staff, let alone pay interns. Many repositories at historical societies, government-funded or not, are dealing with lay-offs, where furlough is more common than pay raise. It is important for those seeking experience to remember that training and managing those without any takes quite a bit of resources from the institution. We’ve all heard the old adage; time is money.
There certainly exists a fine line between offering interns and volunteers real-world experience in the field and providing them with experience that is on the fringe of unethical. I make a concerted effort to steer clear from the latter, but if I tailored every project to the demands of the trainee, I’d never accomplish a thing. That is why, off-the-bat, during the interview, I explain the types of duties required to run my department, and why it will not work out for me to take on an intern or volunteer who is unwilling to carry out a variety of tasks. Besides, possessing a willingness to multitask is an essential trait in today’s job market. My volunteers and interns are processing collections and using content management systems they originally hoped to list on their resumes, in addition to answering and directing calls, clipping the daily newspaper, making photocopies, and other duties they didn’t necessarily go to school for.
To me, volunteer and intern efficacy in a small organization really boils down to personality, especially that of the supervisor, and the delicate balance between give and take.
By the way, if you are looking for a job and you haven’t read Ellen Mehling’s blog reposted on INALJ.com on February 12 called Know the Difference: Identifying Obstacles to Employment, it is a must! She lists entitlement as the number two obstacle to landing a job, after the economy, noting that the former is within a job seeker’s control while the latter isn’t so much.
For anyone pursuing the LIS field as a means to earn a cushy living without paying your dues, turn and run as fast as you possibly can. For those who have a passion for working with collections and helping people meet informational goals, even in the name of working long hours and earning less than you might expect, read on. If you want to see what it’s really like out there, I encourage you to volunteer or set up an informational interview with someone like me, who currently manages 4 interns and 13 volunteers all in the name of trying to keep my department afloat.
After reading the comments I thought to myself, “What do my interns think about their experience?” So, I simply asked them to email me a paragraph or two about their expectations before they began working and how their expectations had been met so far. The general consensus was they were doing everything they thought they would, and more. They felt they were given an opportunity to work on projects they never would have imagined, and enjoyed the freedom and responsibility to work intuitively. From now on I plan to have all future interns give me such feedback, as I need to make sure I am doing my part as a responsible supervisor.
I think many students and young paraprofessionals are setting themselves up for disappointment once they do find jobs—that is, if they only expect to do what they learned about in theory. That is why I strongly encourage those without it to get experience in small institutions, because in this economy, those are the types of organizations that can afford the salary of the entry-level professional.