Wanted, Free Labor: The Impact and Ethics of Unpaid Work

The following is an expanded version of a presentation I gave in Session 105, “Pay It Forward: Interns, Volunteers, and the Development of New Archivists and the Archives Profession” at the 2011 Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting (slides embedded below and on SlideShare). My initial presentation was WAY longer than my allotted time, and because of this I talk about some things in this post that are not included in the embedded presentation.

Thanks to my fellow presenters, Linda Sellars, Taffey Hall, and Laura K. Starratt. I learned a lot from your presentations. A special thanks to session chair Erin Lawrimore, who invited me to speak without having ever met me. Also, thanks to all those in the Twitterverse who helped share our session with those who could not be there.

Invariably, someone will tell a student or person thinking about entering the archival profession some version of the following: “Oh, you need to get some experience, you should volunteer at an archive!” Also, more and more graduate programs are requiring internships and practical engagement as a requirement to graduation. The benefits of gaining experience in a working archive are obvious. My first position upon graduation directly stemmed from an unpaid internship. However, have we as a profession really thought through the consequences and ethics of requiring unpaid work? How does unpaid work compound serious issues facing the profession? This presentation and blog post are my effort to discuss some these questions.

The Financial Issue: I think most readers of this blog will have intimate experience with the financial challenges faced by many of us. We as a profession have basically stated that to be a professional archivist, you must obtain a Masters degree (A*CENSUS, pg. 406). Graduate school is an expensive proposition, with many of the top programs costing upwards of $40,000 for instate tuition alone. Also, most programs have a very limited number of scholarship opportunities. This means that most of us have or will be paying for graduate school with loans, the burden of which weighs heavily right after we graduate. While in school, it can become very difficult to find relevant paid experience. Many programs require that students earn “practical” credit, and it certainly helps the resume. This leads many students to have to choose between relevant experience and positions that pay, requiring even more loans and debt which makes saving for lean times during a job search nearly impossible.

The time frame of that job search poses another challenge, as many new professionals face a prolonged job search. In her excellent presentation at the 2009 SAA conference, “Professional Sustainability: The Elephant in the Archives,” Dana Miller states that the average job search for a new graduate lasts 6-months. One of the causes of this prolonged search, Miller states, is there are currently many more job seekers than positions. This situation will probably not change anytime soon. The feeling by some that there will be a plethora of job openings when the current generation of senior management retires (what I like to call the “Great Retirement” Myth) has not proved true. With the current state of the economy encouraging people to work past retirement age and institutions not replacing exiting staff, this feeling will likely stay in the realm of the make believe.

It is a valid question to ask if unpaid positions are actually compounding the job situation. This concern was wonderfully expressed by Beth, in her comment to the Manifesto post on this blog:

“[Volunteering] can create a troubling cycle where less paid positions are available because others are doing the work for free. It creates this Catch-22. As a new archivist, you need to do volunteer work/internships to be competitive, but this work may actually limit the amount of paid positions that are offered.”

This profession seems to have a large gulf between paid and unpaid positions, with no real middle ground for paraprofessionals or others seeking experience with pay. I think Beth’s concerns speak to the fact that perhaps putting more and more duties in the unpaid category widens this gulf and makes entry level positions even more scarce.

Upon graduation, many job seekers are advised to get additional experience by volunteering while searching for that elusive professional position. While this makes sense, it also makes an assumption that people can actually afford to work for free for what could be an extended time period. I will talk more of the possible effects of this later, but it is clear that we could be losing valuable people during this time period.

The Diversity Issue: While I have outlined some of the things at may be stopping people from joining our ranks, my other concern is who those people are. Following on the heels of the findings that we are not a racially diverse  profession (A*CENSUS, pg. 482). SAA made a clear statement that diversity is a core value for which we must strive:

“The relevance of archives to society and the completeness of the documentary record hinge on the profession’s success in ensuring that its members, the holdings that they collect and manage, and the users that they serve reflect the diversity of society as a whole” (SAA Statement on Diversity).

I think most people will agree that diversity includes not only people of different racial and ethic backgrounds, but people of different economic backgrounds and experiences. However, at the same time we are giving a lot of lip service to diversity, we are also constructing roadblocks to achieving those goals. As I have already mentioned, expensive educational costs and the prolonged job search are financial roadblocks for many. In addition, we are saying as a profession that experience, much of it in the form of unpaid work, is also a requirement. My questions is: are we making the price of admission into the archival field too expensive? By trying to build a perfect mix of education and experience requirements for professional positions, are we making the candidate pool less diverse? Are we doing more harm than good here?

Other fields are facing these same challenges and questions. In a general critique of the internship system in higher education, an opinion piece from the New York Times states:

“… the internship boom gives the well-to-do a foot in the door while consigning the less well-off to dead-end temporary jobs. Colleges have turned internships into a prerequisite for the professional world but have neither ensured equal access to these opportunities, nor insisted on fair wages for honest work” (Ross Perlin, “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges,” New York Times, April 2, 2011).

While this quote is probably a bit more inflammatory than I would go with, I do agree with the general point. I would really like to see more research done in this area, addressing if indeed these economic roadblocks are pushing people out of the profession, and how this effects our diversity. In my opinion, these questions are too critical to continue to ignore, as a less diverse profession hurts our central mission of understanding and preserving our history.

The Value Issue I did not have time to address this in my presentation, but I think ways that unpaid positions can reflect on the perceived value of archival work creates a third challenge. This is well illustrated by a 2010 Ethicist column. A person asks the following question about volunteering at their local library:

“Community members have responded to our town’s tight budget by volunteering at the library, so much so that the library laid off several long-term full-time employees, people who are our friends and neighbors… Should town residents consider that before volunteering?”

Randy Cohen’s answer:

“Consider it? Certainly. I’m pro-thought. But not even those unfortunate and unintended consequences you cite should automatically forestall volunteers.

Many library jobs require trained professionals, work no mere civilian can do. But for those tasks an amateur can handle, go to it. There is no shortage of work to be done by skilled municipal employees… All your community needs are the will and the funds to undertake such things. My optimistic view is that the money that library volunteers save will be applied to the infinite number of things to be done only by trained professionals or those workers who perform difficult or unpleasant jobs nobody will do without pay. And not just at the library. Ideally, volunteers are not eliminating a job but transferring it. The money saved by a volunteer who shelves books can pay a sanitation worker to help keep you and your neighbors healthy. I suspect that few of your fellow citizens are volunteering to work the garbage trucks, that demanding and essential task… There are winners and losers here. And it would be unfortunate if this upsurge of civic virtue resulted in only a tiny reduction in some people’s property taxes, an outcome that thwarts the noble motives of those volunteers: to promote civic betterment by reallocating limited resources” (Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist: Library Volunteers,” New York Times, August 27, 2010).

Hmmm, I get his point. By having volunteers do work, a municipality is free to use those resources to fund less desirable but equally important tasks. He also acknowledges that some jobs can only be done by library professionals. What I find troubling here is the seemingly strong connection between unpaid and unprofessional. Any “amateur” can shelve books, so why should a city be paying for a professional to do it when a volunteer is willing, right? This leads me to wonder if the skills that we are delegating to unpaid workers are being devalued in the process. Why are we paying to have someone create a finding aid when this place over here is having a volunteer do it? Again, volunteers play a vital role in libraries and archives, but I am damn sure the work I do requires the set of developed skills and experience of a career track professional. I bet your job is the same. We need to do a much better job of communicating that, as well as stop tolerating volunteer or internship positions that require professional level work and credentials. If not, down the road it may be our positions that are traded in for more efficient garbage service.*

What Can We Do So I have outlined a lot of problems here, most of them requiring much more thought than a couple of SAA presentations and a blog post. However, I think there are some things we can implement right away that can at least help the situation and create “ethical” internships that are helpful to both the intern and the profession.

I told the people who saw my presentation that if there was one thing I hope they took away was the idea that unpaid positions do not equal profession positions without pay. Budget cuts or other challenges are not an excuse to strip a position of its pay and slap the word “intern” on it. This does a disservice to the intern by lacking key mentorship and learning components, and does a disservice to the profession by devaluing our education and skills. Don’t do it. If you see it done, call it out.

Some additional guidance for creating quality internships:

  • Ensure work is appropriate for an internship
    • Is it archival in nature? Just because the work takes place in an archive does not mean it has skills that are transferable to professional positions
    • If it requires a lot of training, it is probably better suited for a part-time paid position and not a student
  • Internships must have educational component
    • This is not only ethical, but most minimum wage laws require it. Check your local laws to make sure you are following the  rules!
  • If possible, work with educational institutions
    • Universities must provide resources for those placing interns
  • Provide Mentorship activities
    • Resume reviews and mock interviews are very helpful for students
    • Make sure to include honest critique and guidance

See slides 10 and 11 of the imbedded presentation below for an example on how to improve a volunteer position. Sadly, the posting I used for this example is based on an all-to-real posting that was posted to the listserv. I changed some of the wording to protect the innocent (and by innocent I mean horribly guilty). We all have a role in creating internships and volunteer opportunities that are fair. Here is my take on the responsibilities of  those employers providing internships, educators giving credit for them, and students looking for them (I did not have time to include most of these in my presentation):

Employer responsibilities

  • Ensure intern/volunteers are gaining marketable experience and learning
  • Encourage feedback from interns on how to improve your internship program
  • Work with schools to find a good match and ensure you are proving a good educational experience
  • Remember, a tight budget is not an excuse for short-changing new professionals and students!

Educator responsibilities

  • Institutions need help!
    • Guidance on credit requirements
    • Help match students with opportunities
  • Offer classroom components
    • Guide students through any problems or questions
    • Can catch early signs of trouble and ensure a successful experience for both students and employers
  • Vet internships and discourage students from taking inappropriate work
    • Let employers know why you are recommending students not take their positions

Student and new professional responsibilities

  • Remember, interviews are two way streets
    • Ask what will you be learning
    • Ask what mentorship opportunities are provided?
  • Ask placement office/other students about opportunities
    • Have past internships from this employer been successful?
  • Ask yourself how will this make me more marketable?
  • Do not take inappropriate work!

Finally, more than any other profession I can think of, we are concerned with the longevity of our work. Ensuring that we have a robust workforce to continue our work is vital. In light of this, let’s commit ourselves to better understanding the costs associated with unpaid work, to provide ethical internships that provide real value, and make any unethical employment or educational practice unacceptable. Furthermore, let’s make it part of our core function as a profession to properly provide for the training and encouragement of our new professionals, and continue to pay it forward.

*Sorry, that was kind of catty.


Filed under By-Lance

10 responses to “Wanted, Free Labor: The Impact and Ethics of Unpaid Work

  1. Mary

    Hi Lance,

    I saw a related article on NPR this morning about unpaid internships that touches on some of the points that you make in your presentation: “Unpaid Interns: Real World Work Or Just Free Labor?” (http://www.npr.org/2011/11/16/142224360/unpaid-interns-real-world-work-or-just-free-labor).

    While I normally try not to read comments on news stories, I’m finding the perspective of the commentators very interesting. Some touch on privilege and living wages, while others just yell that he’s greedy and shouldn’t whine about his experience.

    • NortheastArchivist

      The NPR story links to a Dept. of Labor fact sheet with 6 criteria for unpaid interns. See http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

      I found #4 to be very relevant to the archives field:

      “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;”

      I think that my institution has definitely received an “advantage” from the work of unpaid interns. Collections previously in the backlog have been processed and finding aids have been created. If that’s not an advantage gained from unpaid interns, then what is it?

  2. Joad

    This, combined with the unseemly proliferation of library-information and public history graduates, is certainly an ethical issue for discussion at the highest levels of our profession. You and the few that have nailed this thesis to the wall will be hailed as our prophets once everyone else catches on and wants to know where it all went wrong.

  3. Lance, I caught the tail end of your presentation at SAA. Thanks for replicating some of your points here, and bravo for such a thoughtful approach you’ve taken to this issue.

  4. Dejah

    Hi Lance,

    Totally agree on the internship culture depriving archives of qualified hard-working people because they cannot sustain part-time or volunteer employment long enough to find a full-time job in the field. But I think we should consider the issue of part-time work in archives too. Since graduating in 2009, I haven’t been able to find a full-time archives job, but I have cobbled together multiple part-time and volunteer jobs to cover the gap. However, some employers are starting to specify years in full-time work required. I know it’ll vary by employer on whether they count 3 years in archives juggling 5 jobs as 3 full years, but it’s starting to feel like if you don’t have the good fortune to get hired full-time fairly quickly after graduation (6 months sounds like a dream, and yes, I’ve been applying nationally!) you’ll be pushed out of the market by those who are. Not that those people don’t deserve their full-time jobs, but if I’ve been doing the same kind and quality of work part-time, I feel it should get equal recognition in this job market, which I am unsure it does.

  5. Rebecca

    I’m glad to see that someone actually thinks this is an important issue! During my graduate archival program I bit my tongue every time someone would mention the need to diversify the field while conveniently ignoring the barriers to entry. How can anyone suggest that we need to recruit a more diversified workforce when there aren’t enough jobs for the people who are currently trying to get in? THANK YOU for pointing out the absurdity of the oft-repeated claim that there will be a dearth of archivists “sometime” in the future!

    What I’ve noticed in my hometown is that the local cultural heritage institutions have created an employment system that relies almost entirely on students and volunteers to do archival work. Because I happen to be from a city with several archival management programs there is a never-ending supply of college students eager to take the work. As a result, instead of hiring one full time enty-level archivist, a company will hire several interns to split the work. What I find particularly insulting about this situation is that these interns get the boot the second they graduate or otherwise lose their student status so the organization can make way for a new crop of interns. The market here is so over-saturated that I had to wait 2 months after I graduated with my MLIS before anyone would even consider me for volunteer work! I knew it was going to be awhile before I found full time work but I never thought I would have to be wait-listed for unpaid work.

    One last caveat about organizations relying on unpaid work that you didn’t mention: how does this affect the quality of the work being done? If an aspiring archivist is underemployed and working with valuable materials in a place with poor security, is there not a serious incentive for theft? When people are juggling multiple jobs and/or school (to say nothing of personal/family demands) it is considerably harder to focus. and attention to detail is an important part of this field. I realize companies think they are saving money by not paying employees but isn’t it possible they are paying for it in other ways? What about the morale of archivists whose job it is to constantly train and supervise a constant revolving door of interns?

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