Avoiding Common Internship Problems (Tip, don’t be a go-fer)

If you’re in the second year of your MLS, you’re probably just finishing or just starting an internship. Congratulations and/or good luck! While internships can be a challenge you really can’t argue with the benefits, and for us online-only students they may also be the first and best chance to get some real-world perspective on what it’s like to be a working librarian.

I just finished my required internship last semester and had a great experience. This isn’t necessarily a given though, as a perusal of my course discussion boards would tell you. Without good planning and a good attitude from all involved internships can be miserable, but many of the most common problems can be fixed. Rounded up for your benefit, here are some of the problems my classmates and I experienced, and the ways people addressed them.

I don’t have the right building badge/internet access/virtual desktop access

My internship was at a federal library, meaning that I needed all of these things to work onsite. This couldn’t happen without paperwork, a background check, and fingerprinting, all of which my supervisors had very little control over, and the process took weeks. Luckily the nature of my project let me do a lot of work at home during this in-between stage, but it was a frustrating experience. If you’re considering a federal facility of any kind I’d highly recommend that you reach out to your site very early and start this ASAP. The middle of Fall 2015 for a Spring 2016 field study would not be inappropriate.

My supervisor doesn’t spend much time with me and doesn’t seem interested in my work

I didn’t experience this directly but heard plenty about it from others. Having observed the interns at a few day jobs I suspect that distant supervisors stem from two main problems: they’re just too busy to give you the time you need, or they’re not really sure what your goals are. If you think it’s the first, initiate a polite but direct discussion. A busy professional can’t drop all of their work for your benefit, but they did agree to take you on. You could ask to establish a set time when you both will meet, offer to tweak your duties, or even ask to have another staff member be your secondary preceptor. Be flexible, within your needs.

If your supervisor just doesn’t seem to know your project aims then you could also try the polite chat, but with a preceding step: make sure you actually know what it is you’re supposed to be doing. More on this later.

All I do is busy work!

Some busy work is expected and helpful. Mundane day-to-day tasks are what makes any workplace tick and doing them will give you a feel for what it would be like to work at your site as a regular employee. But if all you do is fetch coffee and make copies then you’re not learning anything, and it needs to be addressed as soon as it becomes a

You are not a furry rodent.

You are not a furry rodent.

pattern. Something along the lines of “hey supervisor, I spent a lot of time on [busy work task] this week, next week could you show me how to do [X task] for my project?” could work, though you may need to be more direct. You can also get your course instructor to back you if need be. You’re there to learn, so don’t be afraid to speak up.

I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be doing

If you’re looking at a placement that’s been set up almost as a short-term project employee with a job description etc. then you’re probably going to be fine here. Read the fine print so you know what’s expected, but you should get plenty of direction.

However, if you’ve identified a site and e-mailed them out of the blue you may have direction problems. From what I observed on the boards most places that are asked to take an intern will do it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have something in mind for you to do.

The best strategy here is to write out a detailed project or field study plan before the semester starts. Share this with your supervisor in person to be sure you’re on the same page. For example, I wanted to learn more about metadata and cataloging. I found a site with a lot of active catalogers, wrote a plan that emphasized active instruction, and ended up spending a semester as a pseudo cataloging apprentice[1]. Basically, know what you want to do and ask for it directly. Christina wrote a great guide to finding a placement, check it out if you’re not sure how to start.

I don’t like it here/I don’t like what I’m doing

Quite a few of my classmates were less than psyched with their field study sites. While this isn’t the ideal situation, comfort yourself with this thought: you aren’t required to work there when the semester is up. I know you’d like to click effortlessly with your coworkers and move seamlessly from intern to full-time employee on graduation. Who wouldn’t? But knowing that you don’t like something is valuable too, and it’s a lot less disruptive to discover that as an intern than as a regular employee. Learn what you can, don’t burn your bridges, and ride it out.


I guess what I’m trying to emphasize overall is that your success as an intern or field study student rests on your shoulders. Some cooperation from your supervisors is necessary, but if you’re having problems there is usually something you can and should do to address them. You’ve got to help yourself succeed. Good luck!

[1] An approach that I highly recommend to anyone interested in cataloging. SO much better than a class.

4 replies

  1. I’ve completed two co-ops for my program. I would recommend interns learn further about the organization their working for and make sure to have conversations with your colleagues to show you’re invested.

    A placement is a great way to make connections and participate in association events. Don’t waste your opportunities!

    Liked by 1 person

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