Tag Archives: manifesto

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

Justice, Archives Style

I have only been in one fight. It was during the time of life where we as a people get the closest to the kind of violence driven societal breakdown depicted in Lord of the Flies: yep, I am talking about middle school gym class. Derek Something-or-other was making fun of my less than stellar volleyball skills. While his criticisms were spot on (I am not a strong volleyball player),  I found them to be a bit much. Now, at that time of my life I was pretty quiet and shy, like Simon (although others may have categorized me as more of a Piggy), but on the bus ride home (also close to a Lord of the Flies type situation) I decided I would channel my inner Jack if it happened again. The next day, it happened again and Derek Something-or-other got the pushing of his lifetime. I had had enough and felt as though I had to act.

I was reminded of this moment of my life when last week, a group of archivists on Twitter reached that point of action as well. There was a job posted on the A&A that, as I have talked about before, I thought was undervaluing our degrees and experience. I tweeted it. Others people, including @benuski, tweeted more terrible positions. Then @meau took the initiative and started the blog You Ought to be Ashamed at http://eatingouryoung.wordpress.com. A group of archivist will be using this blog as a forum to…, well, lets be honest here, we will be using it to call out crappy job postings. I really, really hope this blog wil not be around very long for lack of content, but I have my doubts…

I will be one of the people contributing, so please let me know if you see any bad postings out there. Maureen has dubbed us the Justice League (in case you are wondering which Super Friend I am, the answer is Gleek), and hopefully we will be able to at least point out some of the uninformed and misrepresented postings that appear out there,  some of which even make it to SAA’s job announcement page and the listserv. Professionals should not tolerate part time or intern positions that require degrees, extensive professional experience, or even certification! The people that post these jobs should feel shame.


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Next Steps

Thank you all for the great discussion on the last post. I am going to be writing about some other topics soon but I do not want you to think that I am going to stop using this blog as a forum for discussing the issues raised in the Howl discussion. And while individual efforts are important, I think those of us who are really interested should try our best to act in concert.

So, as a group, what should our next steps look like? Well, my suggestion is actually a modified version of what Rebecca called for in her Howl followup, namely that there should be a meeting of people that are interested in these issues.

I would like to put on the table the formation of such a group, to meet and organize online at first. This group can be inclusive, comprised of not only new professionals but of people interested in improving the job and educational aspect of our profession. We can make goals like getting these issues put before the profession and perhaps having a face to face meeting/forum at the 2011 Annual Meeting.

If people are interested, please leave a comment or drop me an email. If there is a good amount of interest I will make a call for an official sign up and let you all take the lead, with the vast resources of NewArchivist at your disposal.

Even if the group does not form, I encourage us all to keep discussing these issues and keep calling for change!

**UPDATE** Our ever vigilant and plugged-in readers noted in the comment section that Google and Facebook groups have already been formed on this topic. So, I encourage those interested to visit and join those. I will pass along any additional information when I get it. Thanks and sorry for the false group all call thing. ~ed. 9/27/2010


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My Little Manifesto

This post is my attempt to add to the already wonderful discussion sparked by Rebecca Goldman’s Howl. If you have not read it, I strongly urge you to, as well as her followup here on NewArchivist. We hope the contribution by NewArchivist to be one of suggested improvements that we can discuss and perhaps get on the table to address some of the issues Rebecca and her commentors bring up. I really hope we can continue this important discussion. Thanks to Rebecca and Emi Hastings for their invaluable help with this post.

It seems to me that the least we can do is attempt to create a baseline of what we expect from our profession. This post is an attempt to get that discussion off the ground. I am focusing on two areas here, education and employment. There have been other important points raised as well, such as the level of engagement and cost of the SAA conference. I have been working on a post about that and will try to get it up soon.

At the end of each section, I identify groups that I think can be agents of change in this area. This is not an issue for just educators, or new professionals, or students, or SAA, but the profession as a whole. It will take all of us to advocate for change.


Clearly, there is a feeling right now that master’s degree-granting institutions are contributing to the difficulty of finding employment, especially early in a person’s career, in two ways: by graduating more archivists than the current job market can support, and by not providing enough practical training. I propose that schools devoted to archival training do the following to address these concerns:

Give an Accurate Picture of the Archival Job Market Many schools tout their placement numbers. However, they do not qualify those numbers by telling people how many graduates will be looking for employment again in 1 or 2 years because they are in grant-funded or other short-term positions. Turning to my own experience and that of my graduate cohort, I would think that number would be quite high, perhaps well over half. Incoming students should have this information. While this may make it harder to recruit, it will create a more informed incoming class of students that will be aware of the challenges facing them. My alma mater puts out annual employment reports that have a lot of good information, but do not include the number or percentage of archives students receiving short-term employment. Lets give incoming students all the information they need to decide if the archives profession is indeed for them.

Address How Schools Factor the Job Market vs. Recruitment What is recruitment based on? Do people look at the positions available when determining incoming class size? These might be naive questions, but part of me does think that our schools are concerned with more than money, new buildings, and tenure. I believe most are very concerned with their students getting employment. I know my professors were. I just wonder what it will take to have a school actually reduce the number of students it enrolls due to the job market (you still think I am naive, don’t you).

Provide Managed Practical Experience This is an applied profession and we need more than theory. Most schools provide credit for and/or require some sort of experience in the “real world.” However, they should not stop at making students find internships. When I was in school I took a practicum, which was part internship and part class and discussion managed by working archivists. It was invaluable to me to be placed in a working archive and then have a chance to discuss issues that arose with my fellow students and other experienced archivists. This class is no longer offered in that format, which I think is a shame.  I know it takes a lot of resources to find local opportunities for your students. However, if you cannot provide this level of experience and education to your students, perhaps it is because you have too many students!

Agents of Change: Alumni Those of us that are alums of these schools should be able to leverage that status to at least open a dialog on these matters. Recently, a colleague and I had a very productive sit down with the dean of our alma mater. We were able to raise concerns about the job market, giving incoming students all the needed information, and designing a practical curriculum, among other things.  I urge you all to talk to your deans and alumni groups about the issues you feel they need to address. They need to hear from the front lines of the professional job hunt, and you are the best people to give them that information.

Agents of Change: Students Ask your prospective school how they are addressing these issues. If they do not tell you, demand it. If they still do not tell you, I would have serious doubts about going there. If you are a current student, ask the same questions and give them feedback as to the difficulty you are finding in the job market. Then tell them again.

Agents of Change: Hiring Archivists If you are a professional archivist who sees a huge number of applications for one position, or thinks that the applicants are not as strong as they should be, let the schools know. As the people who give graduates jobs, you have a lot of juice with the schools: use it!

Agents of Change: ALA/SAA Like it or not, ALA is the de facto accrediting body for graduate archival education programs. If you are like me, you will find it quite odd that the accreditation standards used to certify archival training programs do not contain the words archivist or archive. However, this is all we have, as currently SAA provides only Guidelines for Archival Continuing Education, not accreditation (there is a report out there as to why but the link was dead on the SAA site; if you know where it is please let me know in the comments). ALA can use its power as the accrediting body to force the schools to follow a set of community agreed upon recommendations. I think we will need to get a pretty good head of steam at the grass roots level before we can get the behemoth that is ALA to take this up. In the meantime, we can yell at SAA to get off the sidelines.


The job situation is the most difficult one facing us as a profession. The lack of positions, and the tenuous funding for existing positions, is at the core why so many archivists, new and established, are howling.

You will notice that in the following list I do not address the fact that we are underpaid as a profession. I believe that is very true. However, I think as far as employment goes, the lack of fairly paid professional positions with benefits far outweighs the overall underpayment issue. I also think it is a bit unfair to compare us with other professions, like technical or records management. People in the for-profit sector will make more than those of us in the non-profit cultural sector every time. I am not saying that is fair, but I knew that going in. We are among many professions that are underpaid, and in my book, social workers, teachers, people helping others combat addiction and sickness, are ahead of us in line. That is just my opinion, of course.

However, I think we can fight to make professional positions the default, while making “paraprofessional” positions or internships fairer and less of an economic burden. I propose we demand the following from our fellow archival professionals:

Professional Compensation for Professional Work We cannot tolerate, as a profession, positions that have all of the requirements and duties of professional positions without full-time pay and benefits. Positions that file papers all day but are called archivists devalue our profession. Non-professional and/or part-time positions that require a master’s degree or previous experience devalue those degrees and experiences. We all see these types of positions, like this recent gem, and we should pick today as the day we stop tolerating them, dammit!

Underpaid/Unpaid Interns/Volunteers Require Other Benefits Readers of my blog know that I have a difficult time working out my feelings on internships. I think that unpaid work of any kind severely limits the diversity and richness of our profession. However, I also do not see it going away as long as people love the work and want to gain experience. I think we can agree that an intern or volunteer should earn much more for their work than a line on their resume. Building on what Rebecca has already said in her post, institutions that hire or accept non-professional workers should provide some sort of combination of the following:

  • Formal mentoring programs
  • Resume reviews, mock interviews, and job search sessions
  • Chances for professional development (conferences, local workshops, etc.)
  • Opportunities to be exposed to other professional advice, training, or assistance
  • Other career preparation help

This list is just a starter. My point is that interns or volunteers should not be viewed as all the work with no or little pay. They are entering the profession, or are already in it, and should be treated as professionals. Just because you do not have funding does not mean that you can simply create a professional position minus the pay. If you are doing this, you are on the wrong side of ethics–and, in some cases, the law.

Agents of Change: Archive Professionals This one is a no-brainer. If you are creating professional positions without professional compensation, stop. To be fair, the vast majority of archives are not creating positions like these. But I also do not think enough of us are calling out the few that are. If you see an unfair position posted, contact the people posting the position and let them know your feelings. If they are breaking your local law by offered unpaid positions separate from a formal training or education program, let them know that as well. We need to create an atmosphere where it is embarrassing to put positions like these on the Internet.

Agents of Change: SAA SAA should make fair employment practice part of their Code of Ethics for Archivists. This should come as part of a complete reform of the Code in an effort to make it meaningful, with repercussions if it is not followed. I know this used to be the case, but then it was watered down. Perhaps this is something the SAA Issues and Advocacy Roundtable could address?

So there you have it. I hope that did not come off as a rant, although I was kinda ranty there at the end. If you think the posts at Derangement and Description, here, Twitter, and the like are true, if you think that our profession is in need of some reform, then I have a challenge for you. Keep the discussion going, try to work out a common set of reforms, and then act. It is clear that these issues have been around a while, and people were just as fired up about them as we are now, but nothing was done.

Part of our mission as archivists, after all, is to try to prevent repeating mistakes from the past, right?


Filed under By-Lance