Internships, Privilege and SAA: A Council Member Responds

Michelle Light is the Director of Special Collections at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She is also a second year member of SAA Council.  Though her comments in response to the discussion of Jackie Dooley’s presidential address are a bit long, they are thoughtful and detailed and compelling. I hope you will read and comment.

After reading Sam Winn’s very smart blog post on Jackie’s presidential speech, I’ve been inspired to share more about the evolution of my thinking on the issues of internships, volunteer work, and underemployment. While these experiences and beliefs are very much my own, they shape the work I do on SAA Council. SAA Council is laying the framework for action on these issues, and I’d like to encourage all SAA leaders and members to engage with them, open up the discussion more broadly, and help sketch out a diverse set of strategies that will help us arrive at some solutions.

First, here is my story of privilege.  I had a scholarship as a full-time graduate student that allowed me to have three unpaid internships as well as a part-time processing job.  In these positions, I was inspired, I learned what I wanted to be, and I developed powerful connections with mentors and lasting professional friendships that have continued to support me and my career. These experiences and connections helped me land my first professional, three-year project job. After I got my next permanent job, I had the opportunity to supervise graduate students and interns. I continued to foster the same model as I had experienced as a student. I took seriously my role as mentor in helping shape and place the next generation of archivists. I was under the starry-eyed impression that my experiences in the field were a model, ideal, and almost universal…that this was THE way to advance in profession and get your foot in the door. Over time, my beliefs in this model have been shaken, as I realize how the profession and economy have evolved. But let me continue my story.

After a few twists and turns, I ended up as an interim director of a special collections department.  We simultaneously had a flurry of staffing departures and budget cuts; we had half the staff as before and were faced with a hiring freeze. I reluctantly cut in half the hours that we were open to the public and struggled to find some way to continue our daily operations. We stopped processing and even developed an accessioning backlog.  As one solution, other librarians came to work in my department; as much as I appreciated their help, they weren’t archivists and there were numerous issues with having them try to do work that required a background in in archives. Things seemed like they were falling apart, and I worried that I would have to reduce our hours even more. My pleas for more money and more support from our Library administration were not successful.  (Admittedly, some small part of that probably had to do with my inexperience with advocating for archives and the value of archivists, and for understanding how to do that effectively and strategically, but more on that later.)

At the same time, I started receiving a dramatic increase in the number of requests from graduate students in online programs, as well as from recent graduates, for volunteer opportunities and internships.  When the economy was good, these requests were rare, but as people were looking for new careers or something to help give them a competitive edge, the demand for experience in our shop jumped, even though I had no budget to pay for their help.  Nevertheless, given the alternatives, this source of eager, knowledgeable help seemed like a panacea to our problems. I had the best of intentions to mentor them and give them the training and experience they would need to land their first paid position. Unfortunately, their experiences were not similar to the ones I had as a student. These weren’t special learning projects; these unpaid staff kept the department afloat in bad times. Furthermore, there weren’t many paid positions available for them after they got their experience. It didn’t seem fair.

I started to realize that something much larger was also wrong with this arrangement when in our library management meetings, other managers deprioritized our need for additional staffing because we seemed to have such a steady stream of competent, if not fabulous, volunteers and interns.  Resources were then directed to other areas of the library that didn’t have such demand for unpaid work experience. What I had perceived as a temporary solution was only making the problem worse. By taking in so many interns and volunteers to assist with daily operations, I undermined my ability to convince others that I needed additional resources to hire and pay staff to do this very work.  I unwittingly devalued archival work. The specialized knowledge, skills, experience necessary to preserve our nation’s heritage are extremely valuable and should not be seen as free, common, or expendable. They must be valued as worth hiring and paying for, for the sake of the profession. We all have a part to play in this.

Eventually, a few things happened. As I got better in my new leadership role, I learned to advocate more effectively for paid positions and the importance of special collections and archives in our library, university, and community. For example, our department started to engage various external communities more in the value that we, as archivists in a well-established archives, provided in collecting and preserving their history; we successfully raised private money for positions. I also worked throughout our library and campus to demonstrate our value; I gained external advocates that helped campaign for support for our department.  After four years, just after I left, I’m proud to say that the department finally got three positions restored and some additional temporary, paid professional help. The uptick in the economy also helped.

The other thing that happened was that our university curtailed how we used interns and volunteers. First, various unions became concerned that interns and volunteers were taking the work of formerly paid positions throughout the university.  Second, there was concern over the pending lawsuits about unpaid volunteer and intern labor.  Third, our library carefully reviewed what the Fair Labor Standards Act had to say about volunteers and interns.  For example, see Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act.  It applies to the “for-profit” sector, but I think the six criteria outlined there are good to follow nonetheless.  It’s also worth noting that volunteering or interning for archives may fall under a special exception in this act (go to the footnote at the bottom of the page in the link above. See also this additional explanation from the Department of Labor).

I do wonder whether pre-professional archival work should apply to this exception.  I also wonder about whether volunteering under this exception is good for the profession and whether it might diminish the value that others might ascribe to the knowledge and skills of archivists.  Archival work is changing, particularly in the digital environment, and we have an opportunity here to define and increase our worth and value in new contexts (disciplinary and institutional).  As a profession, I believe it is time to reconsider whether past models for both interns and volunteers still work.  How can we continue to prepare and ensure the success of our next generation of archivists?  I’m eager to listen, learn, and act. I share all this not because I think my experience is universal, but because I think we need to listen to multiple experiences in order to come to some understanding of what’s going on, what’s at stake, and what solutions might be possible.

Now I sit on SAA Council and I ask, “What do we do about all this?”  There’s a complicated suite of issues here that require multiple fronts for action and involvement from a variety of members and leaders.  Let’s start from the top.

I appreciate the fact that Jackie, as SAA President, took the microphone to raise awareness within the entire Society for the employment issues facing archivists, particularly the next generation of archivists.  She implored those in mid or senior management to create more entry-level jobs and make a commitment for helping the next generation of archivists succeed.

SAA Council is currently planning to develop some best practice guidelines around internships and volunteer work.  As suggested, the National Council on Public History has a “best practices” document on internships that might serve as a template.  We plan to solicit feedback from a variety of perspectives.

SAA’s next strategic plan also takes these issues on.  First is advocacy.  In order to create more and better jobs in the archival field, we need for our stakeholders to value archives and the specialized skills and expertise that archivists have. Our hope is that by increasing our perceived value that we thereby increase resources devoted to archives and archivists.  That’s one reason for why we have a series of actions under these goals, for example:

1.1 Provide leadership in promoting the value of archives and archivists to institutions, communities, and society.

  •  1.1.1 Identify key audiences and craft compelling messages that are most likely to influence their opinions about the value of archives and archivists and/or move them to take action on behalf of archives and archivists.
  • 1.1.3 Implement an ongoing publicity and media plan and sponsor public awareness campaigns (including American Archives Month) that demonstrate the value of archives in individuals’ everyday lives.

 1.2. Educate and influence decision makers about the importance of archives and archivists.

  • 1.2.1 In collaboration with CoSA, NAGARA, and other influential advocates for archives, develop a broad-based archival advocacy program directed at resource allocators, policymakers, and other “influencers.”
  •  1.2.2 Develop and maintain a wide variety of advocacy resources, including up-to-date issue briefs and talking points on a variety of topics that can be adapted easily by archivists, supporters, and the media.
  • 1.2.3 Measure and report on the “state of America’s archives” (using metrics such as employment rates and salaries, funding for archives, media citations, etc).
  • 1.2.4 Determine methods for measuring the impact (return on investment) of archives as the basis for crafting compelling messages about the value of – and appropriate level of funding for – archives and archivists.

1.4 Strengthen the ability of those who manage and use archival material to articulate the value of archives.

  • 1.4.1 Develop and provide resources and education, using a variety of delivery modes, to assist archivists in advocating for archives.

Note that we see advocacy as going beyond just what SAA can do.  We want to give archivists the tools (e.g., via workshops or advocacy toolkits) and information (e.g. through gathering more data) they need to advocate for themselves and their institutions in their own contexts.  We’ll be a stronger profession if archivists at any level or in any context can effectively articulate their value and argue successfully for the resources they need to accomplish their important missions.  There are more specific tasks under the actions listed above, so I encourage you to read these over and suggest alternatives if you have other ideas for what SAA can do on this front.

Second, we want to focus on enhancing the professional growth of all our members.  For career development, I’ll call your attention to “2.3. Support the career development of members to assist them in achieving their goals.”  We hope to survey members to figure out what career development resources would be most valuable, but we imagine we could provide more assistance for job hunting and interviewing. We also hope to increase participation in SAA’s mentorship program.  In addition, we hope to expand our conception for what archivists can do and provide archivists with more guidance about possible career paths, particularly as new digital technologies might open up new career opportunities in related fields. 

And finally, SAA Council would like to find more ways to get SAA to work for you. We want to encourage more participation and expand leadership opportunities.  More perspectives and more voices will make for a better Society.  Check out strategic direction four if you want to know more about how we think this might be possible.

What can you do within SAA to help address the variety of issues surrounding internships and employment?

  • Get your section or roundtable involved and engaged!  I hope more sections and roundtables will address and discuss employment, mentorship, and internship issues.  Start a discussion on a listserv.  Think about a program or discussion for the next annual meeting.  Think creatively about a year-long initiative. (Maybe let the Manuscript Section’s Jump In Initiative inspire you for what you might accomplish.)   If you want to do something in your section or roundtable, but you are not an officer or steering member, suggest something to the leadership of your section and roundtable, or better yet, run or volunteer for a leadership position.  Through sections or roundtables, you can recommend that Council adopt formal positions for SAA.  If you want to help set the direction of SAA, encourage your section or roundtable to develop a report, action item, or discussion item (via the Council Report Template) for Council to address.  The Council Liaison to your section or roundtable will help you.
  • Review and comment on SAA’s Strategic Plan.  Look at all those actions and tasks.  Is this what you want SAA to be doing? If not, make some suggestions. This plan will guide the Society for the next 3 years.  We’re listening…really!
  • Organize and propose an education session at the next annual meeting.
  • Write something about this issue and seek to publish it in Archival Outlook, American Archivist, or through the Publications Program.
  • Volunteer for the mentoring program.
  • Reach out to a SAA Student Chapter near you.
  • Volunteer for an SAA appointed group.  Look for the call for volunteers in the coming months. 

Member contributions and initiatives are integral to making SAA a successful, relevant, vibrant organization. Please help us think about what SAA and SAA members can do to address the increasing problems with gaining entry into our profession. 

3 responses to “Internships, Privilege and SAA: A Council Member Responds

  1. Michelle, I appreciate your comments about taking personal responsibility for advocating effectively for meaningful internships and more professional staff. I don’t discount the systemic factors beyond our control that contribute to the field’s woeful absence of good paying professional archives jobs, but I also think it’s not a red herring to argue that those of us in the position to ask for jobs need to advocate effectively for them. One approach we’re in the early stages of exploring is to forecast goals 3-5 years out in a best case scenario, a medium case scenario, and minimally acceptable case scenario (usually the baseline); i.e. at this minimally acceptable staffing level this is what we can do, at this more ideal staffing level what we can do, at this ideal staffing level look at all we can do. The strategy is to make it clear to leadership what impact the status quo has–and if they still can’t/won’t respond to your resource request, at least they now know what to expect (unless they’re absurdly demanding, in which case time to polish the resume). I could see doing such a 5-year matrix to describe succinctly the impact of having all volunteers and interns as opposed to one professional staff, better yet more than one, etc.

  2. I would like to thank the internship best practices working group for sharing its recent draft with the SNAP listserv. This is an excellent opportunity for those of us most immediately affected by internship practices to give our feedback. I am personally very encouraged by the swift action taken by Council members after the 2013 annual meeting.

  3. Pingback: The Great Internship Debate: What’s Next? | Archivasaurus

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