At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s program, a student has the option to do a practicum, which is a type of internship done for course credit. Over the summer, I completed 100 hours of work at the Gerber/Hart Library & Archives as a practicum, and I had an absolutely wonderful experience. However, I had a lot of set-backs. Part of me is really upset that these set-backs happened, because I had to pay to do the practicum (summer tuition…as well as driving costs). But part of me realizes that, good or bad, a learning experience is a learning experience. And I hope the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my practicum can help guide you when you do an internship.
As I mentioned, I did my practicum at the Gerber/Hart Library & Archives, which is an LGBT collection in Chicago. Finally, I got to catalog at an actual library. Before this practicum, I had only typed up records in Word documents for class. Now, my records are in OCLC. People all over the country, maybe even the world, can access these materials through Interlibrary Loan services, which is how the majority of the collection gets circulated. Libraries that are not in cities probably don’t have a lot of the materials we collect, and we are more than happy to loan them out to them and their patrons. It’s a very rewarding experience, knowing that because of the work I did, people will be able to get books they wouldn’t have otherwise. As I’ve mentioned before, I view my cataloging as an extension of my activism, and at the Gerber/Hart every single thing I cataloged was about some LGBT topic, meaning I was helping people find this information.
Okay there is…a lot of bad. First, I had to drive to Chicago every single weekend. I had a bad wreck in March, so doing a lot of driving is not my idea of fun. But no pain no gain. I decided not to go up over the 4th of July weekend because I didn’t want to deal with traffic. I was getting ready to go for the weekend after, and I got an email from my supervisor saying that the Gerber/Hart had lost access to OCLC. That basically means that any cataloging I could do would only be local, so I was advised not to come up since I had scheduled in some break time when figuring out my hours. Well turns out OCLC was down for the rest of the time I did the practicum, so the last cataloging I did was in June.
The Gerber/Hart is only open on weekends, since it is completely staffed by volunteers. That is why I only drove up on the weekends. Before the practicum began, I had arranged for somebody to host me on the weekends. Near the end of June, my hosts changed their mind. I could not afford to get a hotel every single weekend, so I scrambled to find a consistent place to stay. One week, I stayed in a Quaker house. The next, with the parents of a coworker. And so on. The consistency of that first month of work was gone, leaving my stressed and worried that I would not be able to finish my 100 hours before the deadline.
So What Exactly Did I Learn From This Mess?
I mean, of course I learned how to catalog in a library setting and all that jazz, but what did I learn from the bad parts?
Sometimes, no matter what you do, things will not go as planned. Ultimately, a lot of what affects you at work is out of your control.
And you just have to roll with the punches! When life hands you lemons and all that. As one of my fellow volunteers at the Gerber/Hart commented on a Facebook status of mine, “Hey, you have experience of what it’s like when a library service botches something, that’s cool… sorta.” And they are absolutely right. Working in a library is not going to go smoothly all of the time. Services will break. Servers will go down and leave the entire library without half of its online resources (happened to my academic library this summer; that was a scary day on the reference desk). Children will puke on the collection. People will get mad at it. That’s life, and that’s the nature of the work we do.
So when you’re looking to do an internship or something similar, maybe have my dad’s advice in mind: hope for the best, but expect the worst. And use every twist and turn as a learning experience.