Category Archives: Professional Ethics

The Great Internship Debate

The SAA SNAP listserv has been on fire the past two days. All do to with The Atlantic article Work is Work: Why Free Internships Are Immoral. This little article has touched a deep nerve in students and young professionals alike.

Stories were swapped between members on how different masters programs handled internships. Some programs required an internship experience. Several students spoke up asking if any other programs only allowed non-paid internships for credit. Many students confirmed their program did, but the stipulation was easily waved. Other programs have no such rule and these students searched hard and long for a paid position (yes they do exist).

Many responses pointed out that the author of the article was focusing on business internships in marketing, finance, etc. which is a very different beast when compared to archival and library internships. With budgets cuts endangering programs and jobs, but not lowering user expectations, I find institutions looking for interns (both paid and non-paid) are extremely grateful to have another pair of hands and a quick mind to help with collections, projects, and exhibits. So we are gaining valuable experience for our time which must be seen as a form of compensation since these experiences are now necessary to land that first job after grad school. It shows dedication to the field as well as experience and skill. (Also that one bad patron isn’t going to scare you away.)

From where I sit at the University if Washington iSchool, I really feel as if I have my pick of intern opportunities. Allowing me to tailor my intern experiences to my career objectives. This puts me squarely in the driver’s seat of my internship experience. I am not going to be stuck working somewhere that does not add to my desired skill set. Daily emails on the student jobs listserv advertise opportunities in UW special collections, programming, user experience, social media, metadata creation, academic librarianship and on and on.

These opportunities are on top of the long list of partners the school has made for the Directed Field Work class offered as an elective (yes that’s right not required). Taking advantage of this opportunity is highly recommended, but so is any experience in the field including part time jobs, internships, and volunteering. Take for example my summer plan. I have two part time internships lined up. One is paid and one is not. In both jobs I will be doing similar work (metadata creation and research) and both asked if I would be using the experience for credit. I have chosen not to apply for credit since the tuition would eat up almost all my earnings from the paid position. When I told my academic adviser my reasoning she understood and explained that was the reason why DFWs had continued to be optional in the program. Some students would rather use their tuition money on classes and not on internships they could work for free.

Now I have nothing against my program’s DFW class. It offers a great template for experience including learning objectives, checkpoints, and reflection. The experience is always firmly focused on your education. Personally, I know left to my devices I will concentrate more on being a good employee and putting my best effort into my work than evaluating what I want to learn or get out of the experience. So I still plan to complete a DFW during the school year if only for this different perspective.

Now does this answer the question: Are unpaid internships ethical? Well no because there is so much more to it then just that. The question is deceptively simple. We must also ask is it ethical to require students to work for free then pay tuition for that work in order to graduate? Is it only unethical to interns when we are treated as gophers and gain no marketable skills (Is it ethical when we gain skills and experience as our sole compensation)? Is it ethical to demand 2 years experience for entry level positions in the field? Would demanding all internship be paid strip smaller, budget strapped institutions from offering opportunities? (Is that ethical?)

Many professions have already answered these questions. Look at education programs. College students are expected to work in the classroom for free while earning their degree. In many programs the last semester is spent totally in the classroom, the student is expected to hold no other job (and isn’t paid for teaching), and she still pays tuition. Is this ethical? It has been the norm for decades.

What do I believe? Well the summer before I graduated with my bachelors I had one paid job in retail and two unpaid internships in the archival field. I found those two experiences priceless. It confirmed my career objectives and imbued me with the confidence of finding my calling. Unpaid internships should not disappear. They open too many doors. However, I find being required to work an unpaid internship to graduate unfair. An alternative should be consider such as capstone projects that showcase experience, management, and leadership or stipends for students that can’t shoulder the financial burden.

What is your take on the subject? How has an internship (unpaid or paid) affected your career?

Also if you are interested on reading more on the unpaid internship debate, I tracked down a interview clip from The Colbert Report on February 28, 2012  with Robert Eisenbrey, vice president of Economic Policy Institute, about his views that every intern (including college athletes) should be paid for their work.


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Filed under Archives, Library School, Professional Ethics, Professional musings

Archival Ethics: Or How I Realized I Am on My Own

Cox, R.J. (2008). Archival Ethics: The Truth of the Matter. Journal of the American Society for Information Ethics, 59(7), 1128-1133.

I’ll be upfront with everyone. I read the above article for an assignment in one of my graduate classes. I chose the article because the unassuming article title promised to me a nice overview of archival ethics which I thought would be very informative since I plan on entering the archival/ records management field after graduation. What this article delivered instead was a rude awakening to the state of ethics in the profession especially when it comes to archivists and records mangers in the corporate world.

Now I’m sure some readers may have read this article back in 2008 and in the back of your mind little controversy bells are going off and you may sigh and think “Not this again”. Please bear with me. This article actually can be viewed in a whole new light four years later. For those of you that have not read it the article, Cox argues that the archival profession has been focusing too much on writing codes of ethics then actually exploring ethical practices in the profession. He focuses the article especially on corporate archivists and goes as far as to ask “Is the mission of corporate archives only to make their organizations look good or to serve a public relations purpose?” (1131).

The question of the ethics and the mission or purpose of corporate archives is even more important in the current employment atmosphere. Not every archivist can work in a government archive and not every government job is secure. A painful fact that is right now being played out in Canada. However, archival and library students are acutely aware that publicly funded archives whether on a national, state, county, or community level are just not hiring (How many times have you heard the phrase “hiring freeze” lately?). What does this leave for new additions (or accessions) to the field? Corporate archives. Corporations are hiring. They need records managers and archivists to wrangle their huge out pouring of paper and digital records. We the bright eyed, idealistic, and naive are being thrown, according to Cox, to the ethical wolves.

Now comes the “I am on my own” part. Cox points out that as a records manager, I would be the first to come across illegal or unethical records that hint that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. What do I do? What happens as a corporate archivist when I am charged to create an exhibit to make the company “look good” when the records tell a different story? Do I put a “spin” on the documents or just leave them out?

I will be honest, the answer I would give on the discussion board in my ethics class is much easier to arrive at and proclaim vehemently as “right” than the answer I would ponder while in the “real” world. My job, my livelihood, my  future could be riding on the answer, and SAA gives no concrete direction. There is no code or articles I can attach to an email to my boss or piece of paper to place on his desk to say “Look I can not do this. It is against my professional code.” I do not have a stable piece of ground to stand on.

Now with the passage of rulings such as Citizens United which has highlighted a corporation’s right to free speech, do archivists have even less ethical ground to stand on? In this new era of thinking where “Corporations are people, my friend.”, do I dare be a “whistle blower” and destroy any chance of ever working in the private sector ever again? These are issues that archival and library schools need to be facing head on.  As Cox says “These are dangerous, interesting, and exciting times to be an archivist or records manager” (1132). So please archival and library schools, outfit new archivists with the ethical armor to combat the dangers of the corporate world, new ideas to be interesting to our bosses, and the passion to make it all exciting.


Filed under Archives, Library School, Professional Ethics, Professional musings