Navigating Workplace Culture [Series]: The Search

For MLIS students hoping to gain full-time employment in the LIS field after graduation, work experience – whether through a job, internship, or volunteer position – is necessary to stand out from other applicants. Yet while we are told repeatedly by professors and professionals to complete an internship or another work experience during grad school, there is little discussion about what to look for in an internship, how to evaluate worksites, and how to handle poor treatment during the internship.

After experiencing a negative internship experience, I held a session with another MLIS student and an iSchool professor focused on identifying and dealing with toxic work environments in April 2019. This article, part of a larger series on navigating workplace culture within the LIS field, will focus on evaluating worksites before applying or accepting a position. The series will focus mainly on internships, directed fieldwork, and other experiential learning opportunities completed during an MLIS program.

Before applying to any internships, work on identifying your own values. Take a minute to write down some values that are important to you. For example, some of mine are a commitment to social justice, mentorship and support within the workplace, respectful treatment of employees, financial support for professional development, and general support for formal and informal learning opportunities. Note that these are work-related values but your own personal values should also be taken into consideration. Knowing yourself will help you better identify potential internships or directed fieldwork opportunities that match up with your own values.

If you don’t already, start developing learning outcomes for what you want to get out of an internship. Along with this, brainstorm skills or specific experiences you’d like to gain. These could be technical skills like programming or working with XML or the opportunity to interact with certain communities like online users or communities of color. This will help you narrow down and focus on relevant internships. I’ve seen other students apply for dozens of internships and accept whichever offer comes in first. To make the most out of the short 2-3 years of the MLIS program, choosing work opportunities that are relevant to both your own interests and that will help you build the necessary skills to secure full time employment is crucial. During an interview also ask about the type and level of support that will be provided. This can help you figure out if you will be adequately supported during the internship or left to figure things out on your own.

Finally, do your research! Before applying or interviewing, look up the organization online. Do they have statements on diversity and inclusion? Is there high turnover? Find people who work in that organization or in the department on social media. Librarians tend to be active on Twitter so look to see what they are saying about where they work. Take advantage of your network and see if you can talk to someone from that organization. It’s especially useful to talk to someone who isn’t part of the hiring process. Sometimes past interns are listed online or you can find them on LinkedIn. Try and reach out to these people as they would be able to provide you with a first hand account of the organization’s culture. Also, remember that you are interviewing them. Ask questions about workplace culture, commitment to diversity and inclusion, and other issues where your values come into play. There is a lot that isn’t said in a job posting, so doing your own research will help you gain a better understanding of what you might be walking into.

One last note is that if you are looking at opportunities outside of where you live, consider the geographic and cultural differences. Working on the west coast is different than working on the east coast even in academic institutions; working in a public university vs. a private, Ivy-league college is also different. As a woman of color, I’ve found organizations and institutions located in large cities to be the environment that I feel most comfortable in as I’m often able to find a community outside of work in the area. For POC, LGBTQ+, differently abled, and others of marginalized identities, knowing what type of culture you’ll be entering is even more important. Our otherness doesn’t stop when we enter the workplace but instead is maximized. Finding a positive and supportive workplace can be difficult but hopefully these tips can help you start to find them.

Featured photo by Jason Wong.


Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

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