Erin Dorney

Blogging life & librarianship

Library internships for undergrads?

with 8 comments

CC image courtesy of Leeni! on Flickr

By my junior year of college, I knew that I wanted to continue on to graduate school to earn my MS in Library and Information Science. Because I was pretty set with my degree requirements, I completed two library internships during my senior year (at this time I was also working part time at my undergraduate library). I knew that having experience in multiple libraries would give me a solid background to inform my graduate studies. I was also interested to see if the organizational phenomena I observed within one library was typical of all/other libraries (I have found the answer to be yes, more on that later, perhaps).

I was incredibly lucky to find a mentor* at RIT Libraries who has truly been one of the most influential in my life. I spent my time learning about the importance of marketing in libraries, honing my design skills, learning about the inner workings of an academic library (my work space was within the Director’s Suite), working collaboratively and more. That internship helped me make connections with professional librarians, many of whom I am still in touch with through personal friendships and professional endeavors. My internship at RIT helped me to land a part-time staff position there following my undergraduate graduation, a position I held throughout the two years it took me to earn my MLIS online from Syracuse University. My staff position led to a whole new level of learning, and I was able to participate on faculty/staff committees, take the lead on some projects, complete a graduate-level internship working on a digital collection, and offer my opinions as a student and soon-to-be-librarian. Most importantly, my experiences at RIT continued to motivate me to become a librarian. I wanted to be able to contribute and improve on an institution which had offered me (and so many others) opportunities to live a more creative, fun, and intellectually stimulating life.

If I had not sought out this internship opportunity as an undergrad (which was not a requirement, by the way), I highly doubt that I would have achieved the same level of professional success as I have today. So you can probably imagine my excitement when I was approached by a Millersville University student who was interested in doing the same. During the spring of 2008 (only about six months into my tenure-track position here) I supervised my first Outreach Support Library Intern. Amy was in her senior year and planned to apply to library school right after graduating with her BA in English. She stuck to that plan and will graduate this December from Clarion University. I have tried my hardest to remain a mentor to this new librarian and help her along the way just as my mentors have helped me. We’ll be presenting together at the 2010 PaLA Annual Conference this fall, talk weekly about library-related topics, and share professional development opportunities with each other when we find them.

This fall, I am excited to have another intern. Also in his senior year, Mike is considering graduate school as a post-graduation option. One of the things I’m working on with him is a collaborative research project which we hope to have published in a peer-reviewed journal. I think that having such a publication on his resume will benefit him regardless of what graduate program he might end up pursuing. I also just talked to another student who is interested in doing an internship with me in the spring of 2011 and who says he has been planning to go to library school for a few years now.

All of my interns have been student workers in the library, so they have some extra institutional-history. I have created an internship plan of work for each of them, based on the same ideas. I go over the document with the intern and then we both sign and get a copy. I am really making this up as I go, folks… no one ever taught me how to run an internship. One thing that I think is important is that they shadow me both in instruction sessions and during research consultations at the reference desk. I hope that with enough experience, my interns will eventually be able to step in and teach a portion of the session (run a group activity or something) or answer a question at the desk. Having a little bit of experience in those two areas will a) give them something to base their graduate-level discussions on and b) might be the deciding factor for a job (student, GA, staff, etc) where the other candidate has never worked in a library. I also have them do some informational interviews in order to learn about other librarian positions and start recognizing the importance of networking.

But like I said… I am really making this up as I go, trying to remember what was helpful to me and what knowledge I should give them before they go to graduate school. A few questions for the blogosphere:

  1. There has been a lot of discussion lately on making potential/new LIS graduate students aware of the difficulties of job searching & myths about the graying of the profession. Is this our responsibility? My responsibility as an intern supervisor? The schools’ responsibility (although that seems highly unlikely)? I have tried to be candid with my interns about the job market and outlook… at the same time they’re getting rhetoric from the graduate programs. I am always honest about library-related issues with them, but do I need to actually warn them or attempt to steer them away from the field? It would just be heartbreaking to have to do that to a student who is excited and passionate about getting into librarianship… at the same time, I don’t want them to end up unemployed. What do you think?
  2. Do you have any feedback on my internship plan of work? I am interested in improving it – for my first intern, I just kind of threw it together, because time was an issue. Now that it looks like this might be a more regular occurrence, I want to make this experience as rewarding for the student as possible. Are there things I’m forgetting or things that have worked for you (as either an intern yourself or an internship supervisor)?

What do we think about undergraduate library internships in general? Are other people doing this at their institutions, either systematically or ad-hoc? Are there resources out there that I should be looking at? Please feel free to share!

* This post is dedicated to Bob Chandler, my first (& favorite) library mentor.


Written by Erin Dorney

September 13, 2010 at 9:00 AM

8 Responses

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  1. Great post, Erin! Thank you for mentioning my blog post, and I’m looking forward to seeing responses to your question 1, since I have many of those same questions.

    I think your internship plan of work looks amazing, and I only wish I’d had that kind of opportunity while in undergrad. It is so great that you are taking the time to give people this kind of experience, in addition to your other work and professional development duties. Like you, I’ve had some fantastic mentors, and I hope to pay it forward when I have the opportunity to do so.


    September 13, 2010 at 1:30 PM

  2. Erin – What a wonderful post! I love that you are so involved with helping others in addition to being so proactive in your own career. I feel as though I learned something about your tenacity and initiative today. No wonder I like you. 🙂

    I would imagine that Jason is going to be all over this post – knowing where he is at within his process. I look forward to reading his comment! (wink wink, nudge nudge, Jason)

    I definitely think that having a plan and course of action is imperative for interns. You need to know exactly what the intern will be doing, why you need them, and how the internship will benefit them. I frequently see interns around the museum simply making copies or waiting for someone to tell them what to do. This, I know, comes with the intern territory however; I hope that those supervising the interns are proactive. One thing I might suggest is asking the intern what type of experience they hope to gain from their internship and possibly tailoring the experience to their needs a bit. If they are interested in one particular aspect, make sure that they receive adequate exposure to that area, in addition to areas outside of their main area of focus.

    In terms of steering students in the right direction when it comes to librarianship, I feel that honesty coupled with good advice is best. Do not tell them that finding a job is guaranteed or easy but rather make sure that they know a variety of ways in which they can help themselves succeed.

    I am sure you are doing a wonderful job. It is a good sign that you are asking for input. Lots of luck!

    Jen Dean

    September 13, 2010 at 3:21 PM

  3. Erin, the Mrs. was right – I am “all over” this post! Ha.

    I think having interns is really important, both to you as a supervisor as well as to the intern for the contacts and experience they will gain. You touch on one of the topics I have written some about ( and heard, and thought about far too much recently – how hard it is to get a professional position as a librarian. I think many LIS students are complacent in getting a job – when you have to be very active/proactive. It’s a tough market out there, and you really need to work hard to make yourself stand out in any way over your fellow applicants. Internships (and volunteering) are great ways to get experience while you are still in school – so I think the internship idea is great! It’s cool to read about you giving back (so soon) to the profession – excellent!

    I do think it is our responsibility (even though I don’t have a job – yet) to tell people considering library school or in their LIS studies that jobs are difficult to come by, and very much competed for. I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but we have an ethical and professional responsibility to be open and honest about the job climate. If you don’t want to work hard at your studies, and at gaining experience, you might want to consider another field. For me, the hard work has really been a joy – I have just loved learning in and out of the classroom.

    I’ve never had a formal plan of work – so it’s nice to see one. The teacher in me wants to say that you might make the “responsibilities” section really clear, so that there are clear consequences for sub-par work or attendance. Also, for a deliverable, how about a blog? Not many LIS students out there are blogging consistently, and it seems to be to be fairly important to do some introspection/critical thinking while you are in school. It also potentially helps build their e-portfolio. It looks great, though!

    And it’s cool to see “Professor Erin Dorney.” That’s totally going on your next postcard!

    Jason W. Dean

    September 13, 2010 at 7:54 PM

  4. Nice work! I second Jen’s comment on asking them what they want. Perhaps have them write one objective for their plan. You never know when you have someone really interested in shadowing a cataloger or wanting to dabble with archives.

    As for their portfolio, make them make it digital. 3-ring binders are old school, but not in a cool way. If nothing else, have them PDF it. Another bit o’ learning for them.


    September 14, 2010 at 8:17 AM

  5. @ Lauren – No problem, I think you brought up some great points in your post that really got me thinking about this issue. The comments have also been great to read. I’m so pleased that you have also found some mentors along the way! Here’s to us paying it forward to others 🙂

    @Deansssssss – where would I be without your amazing comments?! My blog is truly better because of you.

    @Jen – Thank you for the kind words and for the suggestion for my internship plan of work. I think tailoring the experience based on what the intern wants to get out of it is a great idea. I mean, they are motivated enough to approach me about doing an internship, so these clearly aren’t students who I am going to have to “force” to do work. I would think that since it was their decision in the first place (no one is forcing them to do an internship at the library – or anywhere, for that matter) they would have some creative ideas about projects or goals they wanted to work towards. This might be really important with my spring intern, because I think he might be more interested in cataloging (which is fine, and we can certainly use that as an area of focus). Thanks for the suggestions!

    @Jason – You’re right, that’s something I didn’t really address in my post but having interns helps me improve my management skills. My position doesn’t currently supervise any library student workers or staff members (although it’s one of the goals I’m working towards) so having an intern really helps me learn about supervisory issues that might be really important in the future or in another position somewhere. It’s really as much of a learning experience for me as it is for them! I definitely agree that LIS grads need to be proactive when looking for a job. There are a lot of factors conspiring against you, so anything you can do (blogging, for example!) helps. I love this part: “…we have an ethical and professional responsibility to be open and honest about the job climate.” And I couldn’t agree more – this is not a field where you can just sit on your butt and read books all day in a quiet building… in some ways, the library/librarian stereotypes might be influencing the types/numbers of people going to LIS school. If people still think we’re shushers who shelve books all day, they might see this as an easy road to retirement. They are sadly mistaken (and I am glad, because I want to much more of an active, passionate career!). Thanks for the plan of work suggestions – I love the idea of a blog or digital portfolio, soo much better! PS, sometimes on official university letters they mistakenly write “Dr. Erin Dorney” and I clearly see no need to correct them 🙂 Hehe

    @GG – Thanks for the suggestions! Once you and Jason pointed it out to me, I feel like such a fool for not having the interns do their portfolio online… doh! Brain fart there – a blog/electronic something will be much better than a binder. Def going to incorporate that in the next time around.


    September 14, 2010 at 6:31 PM

  6. Taking on undergrad interns is a great idea! I really like how, in your document, you also encourage your interns to be proactive (i.e. seeking out informational interviews) and participate in more creative tasks, rather than solely routine stuff. Experience is so important, and I would not encourage anyone to go to library school without some kind of experience beforehand (unless your undergrad is in a hard science). Like someone said, it is only right to be up front about how things really are…a lot of library schools (and even library professionals) still talk about how there will soon be a jobs shortage, but that is not reality.

    I also want to comment about portfolios. I think having a print portfolio is beneficial as a supplement to an online portfolio. The benefit of the print portfolio is that you can take it to conferences and interviews to show it to potential employers right then and there, rather than just giving them a link to a website.


    September 19, 2010 at 1:02 AM

  7. […] Library internships for undergrads? […]

  8. […] put together an internship plan of work (taking into account all of your fabulous comments from my previous post on library internships for undergrads!). It’s a work in progress at the moment, but I’m hoping to give her some projects […]

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