Exceptionally Good Internships
Archivist, The Bunn Library, The Lawrenceville School
Monmouth County Library
April 12, 2006
My name is Jacqueline Haun and I am the archivist of the Lawrenceville School, a boarding school for 9th through 12th grade students that is located between Trenton and Princeton. The school, which was founded in 1810, has been coeducational since 1987, having originally been founded as an all-male institution, and currently has 800 students. The archivist who preceded me at Lawrenceville had previously had interns working in our archives, but that was not the situation when I first arrived. I came to the school as archivist in 2000, but no interns returned to the archives until 2003, when we were fortunate to receive a generous $20,000 gift from an alumnus for preservation work.
That gift was the beginning of our current experience with interns. With that money, we hired interns to work primarily on two main projects. The first is the ongoing processing of an historical photograph collection, in which we have interns take historical photographs which have been stored loose in folders – unprotected from one another, so that century-old photographs are rubbing up against one another – and place them in Mylar sleeves, refolder them, organize the photos, then enter fundamental data about each into an Access database. The second regular project is our annual Alumni Weekend Exhibit each May, which the intern assists in researching, writing, mounting and placing in the main library lobby exhibit cases. In addition to these two primary tasks, interns are often asked to do other work as needed, including answering reference queries, filing, typing, and photocopying. While most of our interns have come to us through a rigorous hiring process, we have also worked with traditional unpaid internship programs as well. I obviously haven’t had the wealth of experience of Claudia, but I’d like to share with you a handful of the most important things I have learned over the past three years. I’d also like to add how strongly I agree with Claudia about the importance of making your intern feel valued and welcomed into the working group.
A Good Internship Begins with a Good Match
I believe that a good internship begins with a good match between your institution and the intern you are bringing into that institution. We have often had the good fortunate of literally hiring a student and being able to select them from a large and competitive candidate pool, but even if you are not thinking of them as employees, I think you should be. Too often, especially in archives, a certain feeling of desperation for help sometimes creeps in, a sense that “Oh, if only we had a body, that would solve everything!” I think that is misguided thinking. Your intern needs to be capable of doing the work you need to have done. This doesn’t mean you have to drive people away from the institution for being not being professionals themselves. It just means you need to think carefully about the pros and cons of who you have help you and whether or it will be a help or hindrance in the long run. Interns can be a godsend or a real burden on your workday depending on whether they are independent workers or need their hands held every step of the way. Will they make your workload lighter or heavier? Are they suited to the projects you have lined up for them to do?
When trying to match an intern to your institution’s work, interview them thoroughly. Do their credentials match the job you have for them? Do they have an adequate background in the skills necessary? Are they capable of doing what you want them to do or will it take a steep learning curve? Can you afford the training in time or manpower to make it worth your institution’s time as well as the intern’s?
Also consider practical logistics: Does what you are expecting them to do match what their school’s internship program expects of them as far as professionalism or time commitment, pay or lack thereof? Do they have a long commute to your site, other employment, a very heavy academic load, or some other factor that may make this placement somewhat unrealistic? Don’t be afraid to say “No” if your instincts are saying this isn’t a good match for you or for the student.
Express Expectations Clearly From Day One
No matter how professional the student may seem when they come to you, interns are still young and we are living in a culture in which many of the basics of professionalism are not being conveyed. Students often don’t know that there are dress codes for some workplaces or expected modes of conduct in an office. No one has told them! So, please, on the first day of your internship, in addition to taking them around and introducing them to everyone as Claudia has suggested and making them feel warm and welcome, explain the basics of what is expected of them.
Do you expect them to be on time every day? Tell them so, plainly. Do you expect them to call if they are going to be more than five or ten minutes late? Tell them that clearly. Are lunches paid or unpaid, counted as work hours or not? Is there a dress code? Perhaps at your institution, they’ll need to change out of those flip-flops and midriff baring tops or can’t wear short-shorts. Don’t want them on their cell phone all day at work? Make it explicit. Many students just haven’t had anyone tell them what the expectations are and don’t know. Spell it out to them and you will save yourself and them many awkward future moments.
Similarly, if you are going to be expected to grade the student at the end of the internship, let them know what you are going to be basing the grade on. Let them know what your grading philosophy is. Do you grade based on professional performance or some other basis? Does everyone start with an “A” and lose points by failure to meet the minimum requirements of the job or does everyone start out with an average “C” and only get an “A” if you are impressed by extraordinary work above and beyond the norm? Let them know what your standards are.
Keep Good Documentation
On that first day, you should also ask students to keep their own record of what they accomplish during the internship. At the end of the internship, ask for a copy of that record for yourself so that you can refer to it should you be asked to write references for the student. Make sure they include the dates that they worked for you. This was something I learned from one of my own internship supervisors at the University of Michigan, who explained she would remember me years later, but never remember precisely what I had done, something I have found to be absolutely true even after only three years’ worth of interns.
I suggest you also keep copies of your students’ paperwork – time sheets, evaluations, student work, and similar things – for a certain period of time after the student has completed the internship. You are essentially an instructor for the period of the internship and it is wise to document the internship thoroughly, particularly if you are grading the student, and retain those records. There is also the possibility that students may request writing samples for future job recommendations.
Give Prompt and Regular Feedback
Check your intern’s work frequently and offer feedback. If you notice a specific problem, whether with the work or with work habits, address it promptly. Problems ignored or overlooked become habit, so it is best to gently correct them as early as possible.
I would suggest meeting regularly with your intern to give them an overall impression of their progress and let them know how they are doing. Praise them for their successes and let them know where they need to improve, and give them concrete suggestions on how that can be achieved. If they are going to be graded, let them know what they can do to improve their grades if that is a significant issue.
Make the Most of the Opportunity
Remember that an internship is a professional opportunity for students. Some students don’t seem to get that. Some students seem to think that the internship is all about the grade, but the savvier students will understand that the internship is really about the chance to strut their stuff to an employer and perhaps convince someone to write a wonderful recommendation letter about their qualities as a professional employee. Cultivate that awareness of professionalism in your intern. Don’t promise them something you can’t deliver if you don’t want to end up writing this or that one a recommendation, but I think you should try to stress that this is their chance to work on honing those professional skills and getting a recommendation.
If you have a great intern, really let him or her shine. Give extraordinary interns extra projects either within or even outside the normal scope of the internship if possible and really let them run with them. In our program, I was blessed with excellent interns from library school programs, so I arranged to let them do additional professional-level projects such as teach bibliographic instruction classes, work that were not strictly within our internship parameters, but which enhanced their resume.
Finally, if you have had a fabulous intern, write them a wonderful recommendation letter based on that thorough documentation you have kept. And tell everyone what a great intern you had and how you worked together to make that happen.