Ethical Internships: Mentoring the Leaders We Need

I gave this talk last Friday to the Arizona Archives Association annual symposium — many thanks to that group for their excellent ideas and discussion, and for their strong sense of mission and values.


I wanted to start by explaining how excited I am to be here with you, and what it means to me to be an archivist speaking to a room of Arizona archivists. I grew up in Arizona, in Maricopa county in an area called Ahwatukee, which is a neighborhood on the south side of South Mountain, misnamed by the original white landowners for the Crow phrase for “land in the next valley.” Obviously the Crow people never lived anywhere near Arizona. The Crow are a northern plains tribe who lived in Wyoming and were forcibly moved to Montana. And so it is especially strange to me that the area was given a Crow name when we consider that Ahwatukee is bounded to the south by the Gila River Indian Community.

Crow (Apsaroke) Indians of Montana --

Crow (Apsaroke) Indians of Montana — “Holds the Enemy” by Edward Curtis. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

What does it tell us of Dr. and Mrs. Ames’, the landowners who named the area, regard for their American Indian neighbors that they used the language of a group far enough away to be largely irrelevant to their lives instead of their immediate neighbors? I have to assume that they were caught up in popular romantic notions of American Indians, possibly best represented in the photographs of Edward Curtis, who aestheticized and fictionalized American Indians at precisely the moment when it was clear that there would be no more Indian wars and that the United States government’s program of forced removal had successfully met its intended ends.

This founding vignette resonates with me, because I see reverberations of it in my experience growing up in Ahwatukee. My middle school was named for the Akimel O’odham, the Pima people, who reside in Arizona, and our school donned bright turquoise and copper, vaguely pan-Indian pictographs. This was all done with a sharp lack of specificity; it gave the impression that American Indian culture is a stylistic flourish instead of a tradition, culture and worldview. Looking at it now, this divide between seeing American Indians as a people and seeing them as a trace on the now white-occupied land is especially cruel when you consider the persistent inequities that American Indians in Arizona encounter today. Indeed, during the last census there were only 738 American Indian-identified people living in Ahwatukee, which has the wealthiest and one of the whitest school districts in Arizona. I was surrounded by empty gestures to Indians but had no real contact with first Arizonans in my life. The land was empty of traces and traditions of people who had lived there, considered a tabula rasa onto which developers could build tract houses.

And so, growing up, I made the mistake that I think is pretty common among some Arizonans of assuming that there’s no history to be found here. I was participating in an act of mass forgetting.

When we talk about whom we remember versus whom we forget, we talk partly of archives and public history and the institutions in which we all participate, which are institutions that support access to the past to some ultimate end. Some historians have made the argument that we operate in these institutions as a representation of state power. But of course, it can go the other way too. Archivists can be truth-tellers, a counter-force against forgetting, providing access to those who most need access to records as a mechanism to reckoning. Jacque Derrida said that the antonym of forgetting is not remembering; it is justice. But seeking justice is an active process, and doesn’t necessarily result from the passive keeping of records. Archivists have traditionally positioned themselves as impartial keepers of the past — although where these views continue, we suffer from the consequences. In our own time and place, we only need to go as far as Ferguson, Missouri, where the municipal clerk’s office demanded thousands of dollars before filling open-records requests. At a moment when activists and journalists and families are exercising their right to access records to help understand the nature of a deadly injustice, I think that we can all agree that it is sad and insufficient to see the archivist in the story who doesn’t – or can’t – occupy the important role of steward and conduit.

I don’t ever want to be that archivist. I don’t want to be the person whose workflows got into the way of her values, who can’t meet the needs of her community, and isn’t nimble enough to radically re-envision the way I do my work to make sure that the important work is done.

So what does this have to do with internships? Very little – and that’s exactly the problem. In how we present our workdays and what we ask our interns to do, we speak volumes about what we think our value is. We don’t expose our interns to the kinds of challenges that may require them to appeal to their values, make the hard call, live their principles.

At this point in my career, I’ve been on a number of search committees and have worked with many, many archivists. And in my experience, we’re doing really well at preparing new professionals for their first job. They absolutely know how to do archival arrangement and are primed for the vagaries for each repository’s house style for traditional cataloging practices. They usually have a decent body of reference experience, since it’s common practice in academic libraries with associated library schools to have students do reference work. They may have even put together a web exhibition or worked on a digitization project. But they also come to us with coursework in appraisal, collection development, case studies in ethics and access and legal frameworks for records – and it’s very uncommon that they have matching internship experiences to reinforce these ideas. It’s also often true that some archivists come to internships from a subject specialty track, and may have never encountered these core areas of archival theory. If internships are an opportunity to practice theory, why do we only have our interns practice the kind of theory that they’ll typically find in entry-level roles?

Beyond this, I’ve spoken to a number of chairs of hiring committees who have commented that while the candidate pools for entry-level jobs (and often, technical jobs) are absolutely excellent, the candidates for roles that require responsibility in these trickier archival areas – appraisal, collection development, policy making – are far less confident, far less prepared, and have seldom been consulted to use good archival judgment to solve tricky professional problems.

What if we changed our thinking of the internship and began to understand it as an opportunity to prepare this archivist for his whole career — not just for his first job and the next five years, but the whole range of archival functions that we face as we endeavor to be faithful stewards of the collections in our care and provide the widest access to them possible. Indeed, in most of our careers, there’s a long lull in between the times that we learn about appraisal theory, collection development, donor relations, the power and importance of the fair use exception to copyright law, and other, more high level tasks in archival administration — and when we have enough experience and responsibilities in our careers that we are in the position to then perform these functions.

I’d like to imagine that these internships would become the responsibility of the whole organization, rather than a particular project overseen by a single employee. Mark Greene once said that “One of our profession’s weaknesses is that we tend to focus too much on our processes and not enough on our purpose.” I delight to imagine a repository provide an internship focused on our purpose. Hosting archivists would think about and talk through the functions that they perform, and would make a dedicated effort to tell the intern about their own learning curve – the disastrous collection for which we wish we had never signed the deed of gift, what happened when a literary executor made an untrue claim, the successful re-appraisal and deaccessioning project from five years previous, the re-hauling of the accessioning program to accommodate the realities of larger collections, or the painful financial over-reach and layoffs from the previous director’s reign. Sometimes we talk with interns about these lessons learned as way of conversation or background, but I’ve found that it’s rare to commit to deliberate reflection and review even among ourselves, and that we’re probably unlikely to give an intern a dispassionate, frank accounting of our work and lessons learned. But these questions – whether we can steward our resources responsibly, whether we can develop a coherent rationale for our collection choices – represent the difference between a repository run well and one run poorly. We need good archives directors for the future, and we need more democratized decision making in the repositories as they are today, where more archivists with wisdom contribute to these problems – and we need to develop this capacity now, at the beginning, when new archivists first come to us.

Five years ago, the Labor Department issued guidelines clarifying what makes an unpaid internship legal: namely, the internship has to be of educational benefit to the intern. Interns have to understand they’re not entitled to a job or wages. And — the biggest hurdle — the employer can’t derive any immediate benefit from the intern’s work or use interns to displace regular employees.

This has real consequences in archives. If we have interns doing re-foldering or data entry — the kinds of tasks that would otherwise be another employee’s work — we run the risk of being out of compliance with the Department of Labor’s guidelines for enforcing minimum wage laws. There’s some wiggle room for non-profit organizations to claim exception from these rules, but doing so is risky. The National Council of Nonprofits gives the same advice that a major corporation’s lawyer might – work should be paid, and at least the minimum wage. If your nonprofit considers its interns “volunteers,” but pays them a “stipend,” there could be unintended negative consequences. The stipend may cause the Department of Labor to classify the intern as an employee, creating the obligation to pay the intern at least minimum wage and back taxes. The National Council of Nonprofits suggests a different approach, and a change in our language – thinking of the intern as a “trainee”. This relieves the nonprofit of paying minimum wage, but raises the need to document carefully how the internship primarily benefits the intern — not the nonprofit.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that we have all read internship advertisements that, according to the guidance of the department of labor, were illegal. I doubt that these were written in malice or with the direct intention to harm anyone, but they are, nevertheless, out of compliance with the law.

It's unlikely that anyone starts with the malicious intent to exploit the labor of interns. But that doesn't change the fact that many of these internships are illegal and unethical.

It’s unlikely that anyone starts with the malicious intent to exploit the labor of interns. But that doesn’t change the fact that many of these internships are illegal and unethical.

Luckily for these repositories, it is a very, very rare event that an intern has the means or awareness to file a legal action, so these internships continue. In fact, they’ve been normalized. But (and this is an admitted digression), it’s so interesting to me the sturm and drang with which we approach putting our unpublished materials online — which is, actually, indeed usually legal and protected by the fair use provision of copyright law — because of our fear and desire to be in absolute compliance with the wishes of powerful publishers and studios. I have to wonder why we don’t approach our labor situation with this spirit of over-compliance, and I can’t help but conclude it’s because we know that our interns are vulnerable, an unlikely legal threat, wheras we may have inflated the threat of literary executors and other content owners.

The question of paying interns is a difficult one. I know that there are absolutely brilliant archivists from whom interns could learn so much who cannot convince their institutions to pay interns but are great internship hosts – and I think that this opportunity has value for both the intern and the archivist, even if the intern isn’t paid. I would never suggest that that the only valuable experience is one in which the intern is paid for his time. But I also know that there are new archivists and students for whom it simply isn’t an option to work for free. When excellent learning opportunities – and the training required for a full-time, professional job – are predicated on having devoted hundreds of hours of unpaid labor, we distort our professional pipeline. When smart, capable archivists are kept from opportunities to learn and contribute, we all lose, as a profession. We reproduce the same middle-class, largely white workforce that we’ve seen over time, and we lose important perspectives that we all need if we want to be effective in connecting with our users and donors and a larger, richer narrative of American history.

I can’t stand here and say that the key to ethical internships is monetary compensation. But I do believe that internships must be transparent about what the intern will gain, they must be thoughtful, and they must be treated as a serious formational experience in the new archivist’s career. And I also want us to be mindful of the fact that interns are new at this – they may not know what to ask for or how to advocate for themselves, so we need to be thoughtful and proactive about creating opportunities for them, introducing them to our colleagues, asking their opinions about professional practice and making sure they understand that this field may be richer than what they see from their points of view as students.

So maybe when we plan these internships — these opportunities to create the workforce we want to see — we can think about how to cultivate the qualities that are so hard to hire for. Knowledge of archival principles; the ability to speak truth to power; an understanding of why we’re all here; a sense of stewardship and responsibility; an understanding that, as a profession, we all have an obligation to use resources wisely and articulate our mission clearly. I think that students think of internships as preparation for their first job. What if, instead, we think of them as preparation for the really hard job — the job fifteen years from that point when their director wants them to destroy politically-sensitive records or when they have to think about how to do responsible hiring?

This isn’t to say that job experience isn’t critical. Instead, I would argue, the experience of an internship cannot replace the experience of having a job — a part-time, pre-professional job, ideally in an archival repository — before graduation. It’s also important that new archivists get practice with the less glamorous aspects of working life – being at work on time, getting along with co-workers, finding missing call slips, finishing a project on deadline. This can often be the difficult training curve for entry-level archivists – the ability to navigate a social organization to solve problems and put in a solid eight hours of work every day. But in my experience, the folks who are going to get it get this after their first year anyway – I’m not sure that we need for internships to fill this role of socializing new archivists to workplaces.

My colleague at Manuscripts and Archives, Mike Lotstein, is another Arizonan archivist; he worked at Arizona State before he came to Yale. I was asking him what Arizona archivists are like, and he told me about what a nimble, effective bunch you are — eager to collaborate, open to new ideas, willing to do whatever it takes to meet our dual mission of access and stewardship. You’re also a group that serves as a precise counter-strike to the kind of forgetting that I discussed in the opening of my talk. That’s amazing, and it’s essential. And it’s so, so important for a new archivist to be indoctrinated to those values, to have access to that kind of work happening in a repository. Sure, she may pick up a few skills by arranging records in a collection, but I think that when she becomes head of a unit or director of a repository twenty years from now, I want her to have had access to principles and values. Skill and practice may come; the development of good judgment from a foundation of great role models may not. I hope that all of us can take an opportunity to reflect on what we’re really good at and make a commitment to share that with our interns — make the transmission of our values the deliverable that comes out of the next internship we host.

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2 thoughts on “Ethical Internships: Mentoring the Leaders We Need

  1. So smart and on the money here. It also brings up a related point, that mentoring, teaching, and helping archivists grow should not only be directed towards students. Managers should be helping early and mid-career archivists build their skills and advance so that they not only become better archivists, but also to better equip them to make the next steps in their careers. I see and hear far less about this – both formal and informal measures – than I do about what a meaningful internship or student experience looks like. Both are important.

  2. Pingback: controlaccess: Relevant Subjects in Archives and Related Fields for 2015-11-08 | SNAP roundtable

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