Unpaid internships and archives

President Nixon greeting and shaking hands with construction workers after his address at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego, California. NARA ARC# 194751

President Nixon greeting and shaking hands with construction workers after his address at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego, California. NARA ARC# 194751

I was talking to a friend about the imminent collapse of the unpaid-intern-economy, which is to say the economy, and I’ll refer you to the Fox Searchlight interns, the Gawker interns and the Conde Nast interns, and he asked “What do you care old man?”

Archives thrive on unpaid labor. We use unpaid interns to perform essential institutional business, from cataloging and description, to preservation and conservation, to outreach and access. And we get away with it because the standards for legal unpaid labor in the non-profit sector are slacker than in the for-profit world.

Archives are presumed to be inherently educational places to work, and this makes unpaid work legal. Anyone who’s worked in an archives long enough understands that archives primarily educate us about past generations of archivists rather than about history per se; we also understand that no amount of shelf-reading or copy-cataloging is going to legitimately prepare aspiring future archivists for the tasks awaiting them. Given that the activities interns do are less about gaining knowledge and skills and more about inculcating abstract institutional values, habits and rhetoric, and given that we use them mainly to run our Twitter and Tumblr, and given that unpaid interns dramatically underperform paid interns in future job prospects, we’re not doing them any favors.

Are we doing ourselves any favors? You shouldn’t expect interns to curate content, or assess intellectual value in context, but I’ve seen it done, and I’ve seen dime-a-dozen collections described as “highly valuable” and “from an important time” the 1940s, which you know is true but since it’s also a well-documented time, in a way that the 1640s aren’t, maybe curb yourself before writing.

So quality is one thing. Longevity is another. There’s nothing more dangerous to archives’ mission than to have a vagrant workforce. The values we inculcate are sure abstract, but it’s important to us to inculcate them. We need old things handled carefully. We need to respect the origins of collections. We need to demonstrate that things are what we think they are. It’s exhausting and self-defeating to try to get good habits into a new person every six months, and so we’re reduced to hunting for people with “instincts” or “feel” which I get but which you’ll agree limits the pool of potential participants in archivism to the Roy Hobbses of the world.

Finally, it’s about whether archivism is a profession, like the law, or dentistry. You would not feel great about an unpaid intern performing your root canal. If archivists are going to receive the professional respect which we’ve craved pretty much since the dawn of archivism and never really received, we have to make it clear that the materials which constitute the historic record are in good hands. Those hands, to ensure longevity and quality of labor, should be paid. The “efficiency” strategies pursued in archives — whereby skilled labor is replaced with underskilled labor plus software — are self-defeating. If anyone plus a robot can do this, what are we all doing here?

Where’s SAA Issues and Advocacy on this? Any takers?

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2 comments
  1. Kate said:

    Is there any unpaid internship that you think is just? For example, what if all unpaid internships were limited thus:
    1) Intern receives academic credit
    2) Limited to 3 months or 300 total hours per person
    3) Repository does not rely on interns or volunteers as the sole or primary source of labor for essential business

    I also disagree with “You shouldn’t expect interns to curate content, or assess intellectual value in context, but I’ve seen it done, and I’ve seen dime-a-dozen collections described as ‘highly valuable’ and ‘from an important time’ the 1940s, which you know is true but since it’s also a well-documented time, in a way that the 1640s aren’t, maybe curb yourself before writing.”

    You shouldn’t expect just any intern to do these things, but what if the project and intern are suited because of an intern’s expertise?

    In short, should all internships be eliminated because many of them are executed so poorly?

    • No. No unpaid labor is just.

      As for the rest of it, even from the standpoint even of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism, paying nothing for interns’ work fails to make sense — you’re laying out overhead to train and supervise people for three months and then poof! They’re gone! You’re spending money already — in the form of the staff-time of people who know history and know the collections — the intern is pure overhead already. So pay ’em.

      There are plenty of practical reasons to employ unpaid laborers; that’s precisely the problem. It’s just that there are no ethical reasons not to pay for labor. If you want work done, pay for it. If you want to train up the next generation of archivists, pay them.

      Thanks for reading!

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