A Job Well Done: Bridging the Experience Gap with Internships
By Eamon Tewell
Get experience! If you’re a student in a Library & Information Science program or a job seeker new to librarianship, you’ve probably heard this advice and know that a degree on your resume isn’t enough—graduates must demonstrate relevant on-the-job experience. Yet it begs the question: how does one actually obtain experience, especially with hundreds of applicants for a single entry-level job? Most employers ask that applicants have library experience, too; which creates a catch-22 for recent graduates. One excellent way to bridge this experience gap is through internships.
In the past two years I’ve held paid, part-time and full-time internships in three very different academic library settings. Internships have been an essential accompaniment to my MLIS courses, even though I completed them independent of my classes. You don’t have to be a newbie to intern; those coming to librarianship from another career will gain the same valuable learning experiences.
Internships are a close cousin of practica. Both opportunities offer practical, short-term experience in a library setting, whether public or academic, special or school. The difference is that internships may be paid and/or not completed for course credit, while practicums are frequently unpaid and done in conjunction with course credit. Drexel University, for example, offers a practicum class in which students work in a library setting and reflect on their experiences through class assignments.
Internships cover a wide range of opportunities in libraries (not to mention some pay the bills, a necessity for many students) and the benefits are immense for any new or aspiring librarians seeking additional experience.
Familiarity with the profession
The number one benefit of an internship is the synergy it provides when combined with your coursework. Your LIS classes will be introducing you to the structure, terminology, and fundamentals of libraries, but there’s no substitute for combining that knowledge with the day-to-day real thing. Interns have the opportunity to learn how things are done on the job, how things are done in library school, and then compare the two to see if there is any discrepancy! There’s no better way to become familiar with something than by doing it yourself.
Do you have a networking-phobia? Internships are an easy way to make connections with librarians. Not only can you learn from your co-workers about librarianship, but they may assist your future job search by serving as a professional reference or passing along a job opportunity. Seek out connections with people in the library, or within the entire organization, especially if you intern in a small library. While I held an internship at a branch of a large library system I found opportunities to meet librarians from the main library and other branches, whether at staff meetings, events, or just over the phone. You never know what connections you’ll make, so try and meet everyone!
If you are undecided on the area of librarianship you want to work, internships provide a great opportunity. Frequently internships are one semester, so you can learn what it’s like to work in a library environment without making a long-term commitment. I would caution against generalizing all library environments by your experience at one library, but you can get a sense for what the setting and work entails. You may reconsider an area of librarianship after an internship or you may confirm your interest—either way you have the ability to make decisions about your career path based on real experiences. I began my library science degree with the goal of becoming a cataloger in a large public library system, and emerged with a completely different career goal of academic reference librarian. Internships were key in helping me understand my strengths and interests as a librarian, and confirmed I’m in the area of librarianship I’m most passionate about.
A lesser-known secret of internships is they provide great fodder for your portfolio! Try to generate some tangible products on the job, like a written report, a proposal, a subject guide, or practically anything else that shows your accomplishments and doesn’t contain sensitive information about your workplace or patrons. Later you can put these projects on your resume, or online portfolio, demonstrating your specific activities on the job. If the opportunity arises, this is also a good chance to get some leg-work done on a class project and take advantage of the LIS class/internship synergy (with the permission of your supervisor, of course.)
Now, how do you find an internship? There are a number of websites that include internships in their job listings. Library school websites are an excellent place to find internships and other short-term job opportunities to help you build experience. Rutgers University SCILS Job Listings and University of Texas School of Information JobWeb are examples of two job lists that are frequently updated. I happened to find all of my internships through my LIS program’s list of job opportunities. Check the website of your LIS school for postings or resources specific to your location and area of interest.
In addition to your library school’s website, keep an eye on sites with national job listings. With large job aggregators I’ve found the most relevant postings via Indeed, SimplyHired and for non-profit jobs, Idealist.org. For library specific jobs, Combined Library Job Postings maintains a comprehensive listing of library jobs, and provides an RSS feed for searches so that any listings of your choice will be delivered straight to your feed reader.
Finally, don’t forget to talk to people about your search! Chatting with fellow students, alumni, professors, and your school’s career counselors can often be the most effective way of learning about opportunities in your area. Ask colleagues where they learned about their current job. Most importantly, be patient in
your search and try not to get discouraged. Seek and ye shall find!