Get A Job, Or: The Ethics of Library Internships

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Well, it’s that time of year again…classes have wound down, we have (mostly) caught up on sleep after the bleary, stress-filled days of final exams and projects. And now, as we step blinking into the sunlight for the first time in months, our minds turn to the chirping of birds, the roar of road construction…and summer work.

But just as exams and projects are stressful, finding a way to occupy your summer brings its own concerns.

Many library school students will spend their summers doing internships, or as they are more commonly known in Canada, practicums. The School of Information Studies at McGill University, where I attend library school, offers such a summer practicum program. Participants spend ten hours a week during the summer doing unpaid work at a variety of institutions, including public libraries, university libraries, school libraries, hospitals, museums, corporations, and archives. When it was first announced, I was extremely interested in participating, but I soon began to have reservations. In fact, I find the whole idea of practicums/internships extremely problematic.

On the plus side, practicums provide library students with hands-on opportunities that they probably wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. You get a taste of a real working environment, you do a range of different things, and you actually get to apply the concepts you’ve been talking about in class all year. Practicums also provide valuable networking and mentoring opportunities. And since we live in the real world, we have to acknowledge that if organizations were required to pay their practicum students, these positions would not be nearly so plentiful. But as this article in The Atlantic points out, practicums/internships nonetheless have an element of exploitation: “Internships have become an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment. But this presents a Catch-22 for lower-income students who want to work in politics, research, journalism, non-profits, or other industries that traffic in unpaid internships.”

In short, students who can’t afford to work for free miss out.

Back in February, a mass e-mail was sent to everyone in my program about a summer library internship available with the United Nations in Vienna. I was able to think of several particularly sharp and knowledgeable classmates who would have made excellent candidates for it, and the opportunity could no doubt have launched a stellar career for each of them. But as the internship program does not reimburse students for travel expenses, living arrangements, or visa costs, none of us could afford to do it. By not providing any financial recompense for its interns, the UN is excluding many of the brightest and best in the field in favour of applicants who come from privileged socio-economic backgrounds. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but I do find it ironic that an organization that spearheads international aid does not facilitate the induction of a more diverse range of people into its ranks.

As blogger named Lance at New Archivist states in this post: “I think most people will agree that diversity includes not only people of different racial and ethic backgrounds, but people of different economic backgrounds and experiences. However, at the same time we are giving a lot of lip service to diversity, we are also constructing roadblocks to achieving those goals.” People from all walks of life have a great deal to contribute to the library and archival communities and should have the opportunities to do so.

But not only may we be driving away those of lower socio-economic backgrounds, the willingness of volunteers to do the work that requires professional expertise undervalues our profession. This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Sadly, this is an age where most people don’t see the relevance of librarians and archivists anymore (including, sadly, the Canadian federal government, which recently made enormous cuts to Library and Archives Canada). The task falls to us to be tireless in our efforts to explain why our services are more necessary than ever.

The summer practicum is not an option for me. At thirty years of age, I am too old for parental assistance and because I was employed full time before starting library school, I am not eligible for student loans. I am funding my studies through a combination of personal savings and part-time work during the school year. Full-time summer employment is my only chance to counter the alarming depletion of my bank account. Of course, because the library field relies so much on student practicums, summer library positions for students are few and far between. I spent much of April grinding my teeth wondering how it would all pan out.

A potential solution, one that The Atlantic doesn’t mention, is government programs. I was hugely fortunate to find full-time summer employment in the library field through a government-subsidized program called Young Canada Works. It provides grants to public institutions such as libraries, museums, and NGOs to hire summer students. The program is hugely beneficial to both parties. The student is paid a fair wage and gains experience in his or her field, and the hiring institution gets a helping hand at no cost to them. At my job I get to do a bit of everything: circulation, cataloguing, home delivery, selection, weeding, and event planning. It will go far toward helping me find a professional position after graduation. I thank my lucky stars that the Canadian government funds this program. As it turns out, my employer has also hired practicum students through McGill’s program, and our job descriptions are basically identical. But because of Young Canada Works, I get paid. Not for a second do I take this for granted.

So for me, it worked out extremely well. However, given the cuts the Canadian government has recently made to both libraries and youth services, I cannot expect that this solution will benefit a wide range of library students. If anything, the number of beneficiaries is only likely to decline over the next few years. I understand why many feel that unpaid internships are their only option.

The thing is, I should not be too swift to condemn practicums, as they can be hugely beneficial. Especially since I do still hope to do one. But the circumstances in which students undertake them makes an enormous difference. In my case, McGill offers a winter practicum as well, when students do their ten hours a week in lieu of a fourth library school course. To me, this is key. I will still pay the same amount of tuition. The time I spend doing practicum work will be the same amount of time I would spend on coursework for a fourth class. It will not cut into my summer earning time, nor even the part-time job I hold during the school year. In situations where internships do not negatively impact a student’s financial position, I am all for them.

Have any of you had experience with practicums or internships, paid or unpaid? What effect have they had on your library career? Feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments or you can tweet me at laurainthelib.

37 replies

  1. I feel this speaks to the larger issue of “what are we learning in library school?” and matters of classroom education (online or f2f) vs. apprenticeship. There is a lot of chatter about the fact that we don’t learn the things we really need to know (ie job skills) at library school, and the solution to that is very obviously practicums and internships.

    Yet, as you point out it does bring down the hammer on those who can’t afford them or can’t get to them (distance learners, for instance).

    I’ll say that the practicum I took, which I got a lower grade in because I could not *get* to it all the time due to my paying jobs, was critical in helping me decide on a career direction. I recommend it to everyone who can do it. I think it should be offered every term, not just summer.

    Back to my point though, to me it boils down to how information studies programs want to be perceived as academic programs. Making courses online increases diversity and accessibility while remaining academic-focused; increasing practicum availability, via cost or scheduling, plays into the “vo-tech” appearance of a program and so it works to the institution’s advantage to NOT do that.

    I don’t really have a solution, here; I simply think the issues you raise about practicums and internships won’t be truly resolved until the schools decide what they are really teaching.


  2. I did one unpaid 90 hour internship, which turned into a paid job. I was very happy with the experience.I learned a lot and was very appreciated by my supervisor and co-workers. I could not do my current work if I had not had that experience.
    I’ve been thinking about and discussing the morality of internships as well this week.
    Something that is often missing from these discussions is that internships need not be full time. At SJSU, students may do a 90 hour internship, which over the course of a 15 week semester, works out to 6 hours a week. Because an internship is a for-credit learning experience, you do this in lieu of a class, which would have probably taken at least 6 hours a week. There are also increasing numbers of virtual internships, which offer the same convenience of online learning. So to me, if you can afford to go to school, you can afford to do an internship.
    Of course it would be wonderful to be paid, and it’s a shame opportunities like working in Vienna aren’t available to everyone. But there are lots of work and school opportunities that aren’t available to everyone – I didn’t do an undergrad at NYU, for example, because I couldn’t afford it. And a lot of these organizations can’t afford interns either – especially right now when there are hiring freezes, and lay-offs, etc.
    This discussion does make me think that it would be a good idea for ALA or government organizations to offer internship stipends or grant money. I do think we should make those wonderful opportunities easier to obtain.


  3. It’s as though the libraries are dangling that carrot in front of us: You have to have experience to get a job, but you have to work for free to get the experience. I guess there are pros and cons of it either way. Of course, you could look at it like that’s just the way it is and just grin and bear it. And I guess if we want to look on the bright side, at least we don’t have apprenticeships like some professions, such as architects and engineers. I had to work as an engineer in training for four years prior to being able to get my professional engineer certification. I did the all the work and got none of the credit.


  4. I can sympathize with you Laura. I am in my late twenties and working full-time while attending library school part-time. Fortunately my full-time job is in a library. However, it is a public library, and my future goals are to work in a health sciences library. I did worry about how I would be able to get hands-on experience in a health sciences library because it seemed that most internships/practicums require more of a time commitment than I am able to give.

    I agree with Emily that internships/practicums do not have to be full-time, or just during the summer. Libraries have opportunities all year round in various capacities, but sometimes you have to look a little harder to find the one that is the best fit for you.

    I just completed a 120-hour practicum for course credit this past spring semester. I worked one day a week for eight hours at the practicum site. My job was gracious to allow me to adjust my schedule, but I still worked full-time. It was tiring to work six days a week — but I felt it was worth it. I really enjoyed the experience, and was able to complete projects that enhanced my professional skills, and gain insight into health sciences environment.

    I have one more year of library school left, and I’m hoping to find another health sciences internship or volunteer opportunity before I graduate.


  5. Thanks for bringing up this issue! The broader question of what programs offer LIS students as professional development (i.e., real job skills such as resume writing, interviewing, etc.) seems to me a symptom of much bigger, structural issues about library jobs and the deprofessionalization of library positions.

    It’s great when programs have paid internships available or proactively connect students to paid internships in the government or other organizations. I think that’s the best way to go about it. Simply encouraging students to take unpaid internships or even more basic volunteer positions at public libraries as a good way to get “library experience” for the job market is really problematic.

    For me, the issue isn’t ultimately that much about what programs are or are not teaching in classes but more about hiring expectations and position requirements. If professional librarian positions require applicants to have experience working in libraries, then perhaps LIS programs would do well to create opportunities for students to take paraprofessional positions in local libraries. Programs could perhaps create alliances with libraries that have paraprofessional positions reserved for LIS students (perhaps for just a year, awarded annually as a kind of work-study opportunity).

    I also hope that librarians continue to have conversations about these kinds of expectations for previous library work for entry level positions, though. If the bulk of library staff positions in many systems is now paraprofessional, what does that mean for LIS students interested in getting a library position right out of school? In my program, it seems that a lot of the graduates work a lot of part-time paraprofessional and volunteer positions for years in the area before they can find a full-time professional librarian position. This situation raises red flags for me, and I don’t think it’s about whether students are “prepared” for jobs or not.


    • Paul, your comment was really interesting to me and I agree that hands-on opportunities need to be made available through local libraries. The library where I work part-time during the school year has no formal arrangement with McGill or anything, but they make a point of hiring only library school students as their part-time and paraprofessional staff. The library also accepts library school students as volunteers, but my supervisors are very particular about what the volunteers do because they do not think it is fair to give them demanding tasks and not pay them for it. For example, quiet, peaceful cataloguing or book repair is okay for volunteers; working the busy circulation desk is only done by paid part-time staff.

      I do not know if other library schools do this, but McGill actually has a number of work-study positions available in its libraries. But then, McGill is a huge university that has thirteen libraries, so maybe not all schools can provide this.

      However, I do not think allying with libraries outside of the university to create work-study positions is a perfect solution. At McGill, to qualify for work-study, you have to be eligible for student loans. Since I and many of my classmates are not, I would be barred from working at all if McGill had formal arrangements with non-university libraries in Montreal.


      • The increase in online programs also makes work-study programs problematic. If you’re in a different state or country than your school, it’s hard to work in your university library. It also makes finding partnerships with students’ local libraries a much bigger task. Although if it was a more systemic and common thing for schools to have work-study agreements with non-university libraries, maybe this would be an easier.


        • I moved from CA to IN to go to library school. I could have easily gone to SJSU, but I wasn’t working in a library at the time and had no way to get my foot in the door at a library in my area at thetime. I wanted to be able to work in a university library so I moved out of state to an on-campus program. Looking back, I don’t know if moving out of state was necessary, but I seriously don’t think I’d be working as a librarian right out of school if I hadn’t moved.


  6. I worked as a paraprofessional at one library, and did an unpaid internship at another one. Some of the internships in the area are paid: mine was not. But the institution I worked for understood that I was volunteering, and was very flexible with my hours and allowed me to work from home on certain projects. I got a lot of good experience, and I think that contributed to the professional job (part-time, but professional) that i got right out of school. But it was very hard to do the practicum, work even part-time, and do my courses.


  7. I’m the Vice-President of Records Management for the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC). I currently have four (4) interns working here: two paid ($16/hour, no benefits) and two unpaid (full academic credit—one course equivalent).

    I make a point of bringing on interns from a library school, archives program, or similar program (there are seven in this area), because “I don’t have to explain to them what metadata is”, they are generally well-motivated workers, and they are often self-starters.

    It’s part of my obligation to the interns to (a) see they get an education out of their time with us, which includes explaining WHY we do the things we do; and (b) help them get a “real job” by offering advice, networking, references, etc.

    I’m not sure whether their work with us is really “preparation” for future employment in the narrowest sense of the term—every situation is different—but perhaps collecting a variety of work experience is helpful.

    Also, I teach a Digital Preservation course at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, Queens College (City University of New York). I tell my students they have to look for employment in areas other than the traditional “archives, librairies, museums” area. Areas such as oil & gas exploration, nuclear power utilities; anywhere there is a strong business requirement to keep electronic (not just digital) records for the long term.

    Good luck to all of you who are, or will be, job-hunting.


  8. Great blog post – however, Young Canada Works has an age limit (you seemed to be just below it) and many capable, bright future librarians miss out on this opportunity as well.


    • I agree with you wholeheartedly. I squeaked in under the age cutoff by just four months. Since many people are changing careers now and our generation is taking longer to jump start as well, I think the government should raise the age bar.


  9. Throughout my undergraduate years and my time in Library School, I was extremely lucky to participate in paid internship programs in areas of my interest nearly every summer. It has been said that getting a PhD is a sign of perseverance, rather than intelligence, and landing paid LIS/archives internships is much the same. My internships were the results of very laborious job search/application periods (sometimes starting nearly a year in advance) and a little bit of luck. I couldn’t ever afford to work for free, so I wasted little time and effort in applying for unpaid programs.

    It also really helps to have an open mind, both in the internship and job search process-H/T to Fred Grevin for mentioning this. Largely because of my willingness to try an experience outside of my expectations (I come from a traditional humanities/special collections background), I interned at a corporate archive this past year. It paid generously, provided free housing, and covered travel expenses. I learned an incredible amount, and contrary to my expectations, really enjoyed it. As Stephen Bell wrote recently in LJ, “Paying more attention to business isn’t selling out. It’s about discovering new possibilities to improve the library experience” (

    I also agree overwhelmingly with Laura’s remarks about diversity. There’s rarely an internship or job posting that doesn’t have some blurb about how diversity is a priority for the organization/position, but diversity recruitment is usually based on ethnic background above any other factor. Being a white female is essentially the equivalent of being a white male in many other professions. ALA (and to a lesser extent, SAA) is a broken record about “promoting diversity,” but the vast majority of diversity-based scholarships they sponsor are aimed at promoting racial/ethnic diversity at the exclusion of other factors, such as economic background. Many library school scholarship programs are plagued by the same problem. I do think, however, that this skewed concept of “diversity” is a problem inherent in modern culture, not just librarianship.


    • Being able to think outside the box about job opportunities is both good and necessary. I have my “dream job” in mind and am definitely still shooting for it, but I also made sure to make myself flexible so that I will be able to work in different types of settings following graduation.


  10. I really enjoyed this and I apologize for the length of the comment. I do agree with Laura, and I definitely agree that those who cannot work for free miss out. The disparities in access to opportunities can be incredibly disheartening.

    Last summer I interned in DC with Amnesty International. Many of the interns I worked with came from well off backgrounds and they were using their summer time wisely, but there are definitely those who would’ve loved to have there position, but couldn’t afford to work for free. I went through The Washington Center in order to get class credit and housing (they also have relationships with DC libraries if one needs help getting placed). The program is normally 9k+, but the state of Florida gives every admitted student to the program $7,000 ($500 of it is contingent on staying in TWC housing) and then my undergraduate Honors program gave me extra. Other states provide funding as well, but it varies. I spent $510 total (not including food), lived in DC, and walked 30 minutes to the office. It isn’t always the case, but often there are opportunities, like TWC and Young Canada Works out there.

    I have some issues with unpaid internships, but when it comes down to it, we need the experience. I researched, made a plan, and sought funding. Sometimes I do agree that unpaid internships are unethical, but when it comes to non-profits, I sometimes feel uncomfortable making that judgment. I think some libraries can afford to pay interns, but don’t. But there is a difference between a full-time intern and someone who can spend just one day a semester working at a library in order to gain experience. If we start early, giving our time in small amounts for learning opportunities can grow to good experience over the years it takes to earn the MLS/MLIS.

    Currently I am interning in Naples, FL with the Revs Institute for Automotive Research. I love my job, and it is paid! Next week I begin a part-time summer public library assistant position with Collier county. I was incredibly surprised at the paid opportunity when they easily could have offered it as an unpaid internship. I stalked every 2-3 days for such opportunities.

    I got lucky a lot, too. We all have different experiences, and it is really unfortunate for the students who are required to do internships and are fighting for local ones with other LIS students. However, I disapprove of internships for credit simply because it is unpaid work PLUS you have to pay tuition costs.

    It certainly isn’t easy, but I think with enough research (we should all be getting good at that, right?), luck, and out of the box thinking, we can find a way.


  11. “However, I disapprove of internships for credit simply because it is unpaid work PLUS you have to pay tuition costs.”

    Agreed, unless there is significantly more to it than just going and doing the work. For example, my Library Technician program will start its practicum class this fall, and the professors are considering making an e-portfolio part of the class. If my professors are required to review reports on my internship or monitor the creation of a portfolio, it starts to make sense to pay for the credit hours.

    “If the bulk of library staff positions in many systems is now paraprofessional, what does that mean for LIS students interested in getting a library position right out of school?”

    This is why I ultimately chose to go back to school for paraprofessional-level training instead of going on to an MLIS right away. It is difficult to get even a support staff position in this area, let alone a professional level one. Even though the economy is likely mostly responsible for the lack of openings, my proximity to MLS programs at the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University must have some effect.


  12. I was very excited about a particular internship at the end of last year. It wasn’t local to me or the school, but a virtual internship where work could be done remotely and largely on the student’s own hours. (I work 40 hours/week and commute by train, so a traditional on-site internship wasn’t an option.) Most importantly, it was a PAID position — $10/hr. That would offset, but not cover, the tuition for the course: 3 credit units at $476 each ($1428) versus $900 (before taxes!) for the equivalent working hours. Oh, and there are mandatory campus fees that come to just under $500 for the term.

    This was the good forecast. Unfortunately, that internship site decided not to take an summer interns this year, so I’ll be working (for an excellent local program!) without pay. So that’s $2000 cash out of my pocket JUST for the internship (I’m also taking 3 more credits). It makes my head hurt.


  13. Unpaid internships in graduate school should, in my opinion, be part of a class or otherwise offered for credit. LIS students come from such a range of backgrounds that working for no pay is a much more difficult situation than it is for undergrads. I was fortunate that the required internship for my introductory archives class was arranged by my program; it was a great opportunity to get experience without high stakes.

    As a profession, we undervalue ourselves and our colleagues by depending so much on professional-level but unpaid labor. Practical experience is important, and sometimes that work comes at a cost for the learner, but beyond a school-sanctioned internship I don’t think it’s wise to continue encouraging unpaid internships for debt-saddled but very skilled individuals in the field. And as other commenters have mentioned, the dependence of librarianship on unpaid labor, which favors those in a stable economic situation, is antithetical to the mission of many professional organizations to promote diversity.


  14. Great topic of discussion Laura! I’ve looked into the possibility of taking a practicum, as they are offered every semester at my school, but when I think about how I will have to pay out of my pocket to receive credits for it, not to mention seek out the place to complete the practicum at, I think “Why should I have to pay my school for a practicum that I myself have to find in order to receive credits?” To me it makes more sense to NOT pay anyone for me to intern somewhere so that I put that money towards something else or save it. Reading your post as well as the article you linked in the Atlantic, I can’t help but think of the vast disparities that exist between the private and public sector companies. For public sector/ non profit organizations who are strapped for cash I can see it as difficult to come up with the funds to pay for interns, versus a private sector company that might not be negatively effected at all to pay its interns. Which is another interesting point, someone tell me if this is true or not, but to intern at a private sector for-profit company don’t you have to do it FOR CREDIT? I do agree with commenters, it’s downright depressing that very skilled individuals (which all us LIS students will eventually be) are being overlooked in favor of students, the question is what can we do about it? Is this something that involves a change in government policy? Perhaps. Does this also point to a problem in our Library School Program structure? -Yes. What a vicious cycle.


    • I think it’s more of a LIS employer and school culture issue than a government policy issue. It’s the libraries themselves who have made experience a requirement for a job, so the LIS schools have responded with the practicum and internships. Other professions will hire someone right out of school without any experience, knowing they are entry-level and expecting to have to train them.


      • I know this is an old post but it’s not just the LIS profession that is requiring experience for entry level position. This is a problem in the job market in general and has been a problem for some time. My mother is a social worker and she had to work unpaid internships in college before she got her first paid social worker position. So perhaps some government action might help. It boggles my mind that an entry level position would require experience. I suppose if one has experience, it could be considered a plus in the application process. However, you shouldn’t have to have experience to apply for entry level positions.


  15. I agree with you, and it is definitely not an easy situation to sort out. The library where I am working now is a “private” public library funded through donations, membership fees, and the occasional grant. There is a small professional staff but volunteers do much of the work too. It’s tough because the library would have to shut down if it had to pay for that work; on the other hand, those are potential jobs for students that could really help them get by. No easy answer!


  16. Internships also have many potential upsides that I want to inject into the conversation. Speaking of non-profit or government libraries, these are institutions we believe in and want to succeed, so when I work for free, I don’t feel taken advantage of, I feel like I am contributing to a cause.

    Interns are a very powerful tool for libraries, allowing them to complete or create special projects that would be impossible without their work. These are usually temporary projects that require close to professional level work, but aren’t taking the place of a paid full time staff member.

    Personally, I would never want to take an internship for credit because then I’m paying to work for free. However, I think there is a place for these programs, especially if they are accompanied by a robust class component. They give people who aren’t able to do an internship on top of class work to do one instead of it. Many internships are only available to these students.

    Of course we all wish there were more paid part-time paraprofessional positions available for library students to get experience. But there will never be enough. If you are lucky your school’s library will offer these positions. These are ripe for expansion, but this also leads to the replacement of professionals with paraprofessionals, and will this increase the de-professionalization of librarianship?

    Other options like scholarship stipends for internships are an incredible option, but also competitive. The bottom line is that students who can afford to work for free have an advantage, however this is much the same in most areas of life. Or on the other hand those of us (myself included) who take huge loans in order to be able to not work to school, and thus be able to do internships. Which is a whole ‘nother problem.

    On the whole I think interns are a great boon to libraries, and as long as they don’t take advantage of interns (using them to replace a paid staff rather than augment it, or by giving them tasks that aren’t helping them learn) they are good for library students. The expansion of part-time positions, scholarships, and stipends is a noble goal and one we should advocate in order to level the playing field.


  17. Great topic for discussion. From my perspective the term “practicum” and “internship” are not fully synonymous. Practicums are generally if not always for academic credit and often have a different flavour than internships.

    I don’t know if others would agree, but in Canada there seem to be far fewer paid or unpaid non-credit internships. It just isn’t as much a part of the culture for some reason.

    Laura, I hope you get to take a practicum later on in your program if that’s what you’re hoping for! But it sounds like you’re already picking up some great skills outside of the practicum structure.


  18. I went to the University of Western Ontario because of their co-op program. Students can work for two 4 month terms in a paid, full time position (usually around $20/hour). You have to pay tuition, but only for part-time fees, so it isn’t too much. I did a co-op in the federal government and another co-op in an academic library. The experiences were great and I got to save some money while getting valuable work experience. I’m currently in India doing an unpaid internship (although my flights and apartment are mostly covered) which I don’t think I could do without having the chance to work full-time for the past 12 months. If anyone is interested, we have a blog about this internship:


  19. Tomorrow I begin my third unpaid internship. My first and second were successful, and the second led to a paid job. Problem is it was only temporary, due to the inane and archaic civil service rules in NY state. I have very little “professional” experience, so the chances of scoring high enough on the librarian I civil service exam to get an interview, even at a place where they already know me and my abilities, are very slim. And you only get credit on the exam for internships lasting at least 8 months– virtually twice as long as any semester-long internship. I hope to gain more experience and stay in the loop with my (hopefully) future employer, so it’s back to the unpaid intern grindstone for me.


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