Experience Required

Practicums and internships give LIS students valuable experience on the ground but can prove more of a barrier than a boon.

Practicums and internships give LIS students valuable experience on the ground but can prove more of a barrier than a boon

Students typically pursue a master’s degree in library and information science (LIS) because they hope to become working information professionals. LIS programs and information schools take various approaches to equipping students for the workplace, which often requires practical skills that prove challenging to teach in a strictly classroom (or online classroom)–based environment. Such programs offer at least encouragement and opportunities for students to participate in either internships—paid or unpaid work experiences independent of schoolwork—or practicums—work experiences for credit, often involving a final paper or seminar meetings with faculty.

Toronto Academic Libraries Internship (TALint) Program cohort

The first Toronto Academic Libraries Internship (TALint) Program cohort
Photo credit: Gordon Belray

Vital Work Experience

Graduate-level LIS coursework can be intellectually stimulating, introducing interesting theories about information science, but the heavily academic focus in some programs can be in conflict with the need for students to learn the technical tools of their chosen profession. David Shumaker, clinical associate professor in the department of Library and Information Science at Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, explains that not only do students gain useful work skills through experiential learning, ranging from data management to research skills, they also gain a sense of “what it is like to work in a particular setting.” Internships and practicums provide a unique opportunity to ask, “Is this the kind of place where I want to work? The student is better equipped to choose that first professional job and better equipped to perform well in the setting they choose.”

Shumaker emphasizes the “student-centeredness” of the approach to practicums at his institution. Students are expected to take on a leadership role in arranging their work experiences and coordinating with host institutions. “We can coach the student to the extent that the student wants the coaching,” he says, but motivating students to take charge is “empowering” and makes it more likely that the practicum experience will fit their professional goals. Practicum experiences also benefit from host institutions that are dedicated to supervising students and encouraging their continuing education.

At their best, practicums or internships will be established in a way that supports students taking ownership of their work product and contributing to their hosts’ ongoing objectives, not just filing, shelving, or “doing things the staff don’t have time to do,” says Shumaker. He offers the example of a practicum student who worked on a particularly common research request for their library host and then moved on to create documentation that could guide other employees in tackling such work in the future. “That’s a product that will continue to benefit that library operation over time,” he said, “and it’s nice to have that sort of legacy from a student’s practicum work.”

According to Rebecca Raszewski, associate professor and information services and liaison librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Library for the Health Sciences, a structured practicum gives LIS students the chance to “see how things work, the different approaches to being a librarian, and the different ways we connect with people.” She works with a practicum in which library students spend 12 weeks split between two libraries, presenting an opportunity to compare the methods of professionals in different settings. Students also submit weekly written work describing their experiences and reflecting upon what they have learned. “I don’t see how people could not do” practicums, she tells LJ. “If [library schools] want students to get hired, you have to make them do this.”

Raszewski also questions the “very low number” of schools that actually require students to take part in a practicum before graduating rather than simply offering the opportunity. Limited buy-in from library schools could be owing to a lack of resources or partner institutions that can take the time to provide a structured and educational practicum experience, she suggests. “It’s true that it is a lot of work and coordination,” for such partners, including providing students with work spaces, interesting projects, and super­vision. Practicum students or interns can, however, provide a benefit to their workplaces, offering fresh ideas based on their coursework and past job experience.

Meeting Employer Expectations

Experiential education experiences are critical not only for student satisfaction and enrichment but also for what employers expect from new librarians. Mandi Goodsett, performing arts and humanities librarian at Cleveland State University, has studied librarian and library student attitudes toward education and found that LIS graduates think “that their hands-on experiences were the most important part of their degree programs, and the part of their degree program that was lacking the most.” In surveys, professionals mention skills such as instruction, management and administration, and public services as particularly amenable to learning on the job. Goodsett has also found that graduates appreciated pairing experiential learning with coursework, drawing connections between theory and practice.

Goodsett’s research has also found that “libraries are frustrated because they need to hire people with skills. Students are graduating, they need a job, but the graduates don’t have the skills the employers want.” Such a disconnect creates a frustrating environment in which aspiring librarians struggle to find entry-level positions. Goodsett observes that library schools fit somewhere on a spectrum between providing academic programming and a clearly professional degree and are struggling to adjust to meet the profession’s needs. She suggests postgraduation fellowships as one solution to the skills gap and a way to build experience while learning. She also advocates for formal mentorship programs to support new professionals.

Internships and other experiential education provide important insight into the day-to-day realities of the profession and the ways in which librarians actually work. Some skills necessary for most library settings, including the less exciting aspects such as budgeting and managing interpersonal conflicts, would be very challenging to teach in a classroom. As Shumaker explains, “in addition to the specific competencies that we are trying to teach [through practicums], there is the sense that employers want to be able to hire new graduates who have a sense of what work life is all about and what the expectations are for the way you function and behave in an organizational setting.”

Eamon Tewell, reference and instruction librarian at Long Island University Brooklyn, also points out the practicum’s or internship’s potential for learning highly sought-after skills like teaching. “One thing that I find less common among applicants right out of library school is experience teaching, which is a big part of academic library public services work. It’s hard to get teaching experience if you don’t already have some, so it’s a difficult position for students to be in. But having experience doing library instruction, teaching in a different setting, or even including a teaching statement goes a long way for jobs that involve instruction.”

Challenges and Barriers

“Good internships pay students for their labor, give them solid work experience, and give them support to seek out opportunities and pursue their interests,” according to Tewell. This highlights one common barrier to students embracing internships and practicums—the frequent lack of pay. “Unpaid internships absolutely narrow opportunities for some people and facilitate opportunities for those who can afford to take advantage of them,” he notes. “Practicums are problematic in a similar way in that students work for a library for free while paying their school to do so. Only some students can afford to do that financially, and the students who can afford it gain experience, representing what is essentially a pay-to-play system.”

This means that aspiring librarians who cannot afford to work for free miss out on valuable opportunities, and Tewell feels that unpaid internships offer experience “at the cost of exploiting the labor of students” and contribute to the profession’s lack of diversity. Rebecca Stavick, executive director of Omaha’s technology library Do Space and a 2018 LJ Mover & Shaker, also highlights the extent to which the current structure of the LIS degree and internships can close doors. It is challenging for schools to teach “soft skills” like customer service and management, she observes.

Shumaker points out that internships and practicums may prove impossible for students who already work full-time, or have other demands on their time and resources. He says, “There has been a discussion about ‘can we do a virtual practicum?’ My answer to that is yes, and I can envision more flexible practicums in the future.” Virtual practicums could involve more independent telework with some face-to-face meetings to build working relationships and communication between the student and the host institution.

Shumaker also considers incorporating extensive field projects into sections of more standard courses, offering opportunities for students to work independently while also gaining real-world experience. Other LIS programs have included postgraduate paid fellowships, offering a paid entry into information work for newer professionals, as well as service-learning, in which students or early-career librarians can fill service gaps in their communities while gaining experience themselves. Overall, educators and sponsors of intern­ships and practicums are aware of the opportunity barriers for students with limited time or financial means and are eager to democratize these critical educational programs by providing additional substantial hands-on experience as part of their coursework, rather than paying tuition dollars to work for free.

Bridging the Gap

At the University of Toronto (UT), the faculty of information has teamed up with UT Libraries to create the Toronto Academic Libraries Internship (TALint) Program. Founded in 2014, TALint connects a cohort of incoming students (approximately 30 annually, selected based on factors including undergraduate grades) with two-year academic library internships. These interns work up to 15 hours per week at UT Libraries and are paid a union wage—currently $26.53 CD an hour.

Siobhan Stevenson, of the UT Faculty of Information, notes that this provides outstanding work experience for students and that “for the library the [rewards] are huge” as well. Students provide expertise in areas such as digitization, social media, and user interface and are also being hired for nontraditional library work like User Experience design. In addition, working consistently with these interns helps library staff develop their own skills at mentoring and supervision.

“People are delighted that the students are getting real experience,” Stevenson tells LJ, and “everybody’s on board with this learning-in-place thing. We want these concrete skills and practices, and sometimes the theory is just a lot of noise.” While sparking enthusiasm for the goals of TALint has not been difficult, the process of putting in place an ambitious new academic program is never easy. While one of the great benefits of TALint is that it removes the financial burden on students seeking employment during their graduate school years and lets them avoid unpaid internships, the funds must come from somewhere. In terms of finding support, Stevenson recommends “establishing a close partnership between the faculty or school and the library. To get the funding, the program has to tie into the university’s overall strategic plan and be sensitive to the key goals of the university.”

Urging LIS students to connect with their chosen field through experiential learning can, as Shumaker says, “help to bring the entire program in closer contact with the profession,” prompting continued engagement with shifts and trends in the nature of library and information work. As Stavick observes, the future of libraries requires “somebody to...start challenging the rules that we have created around these organizations; to start thinking differently about what libraries need.” She describes a “growing movement” of individuals rethinking professional library education and training. Many library schools emphasize internships and practicums to provide students with the real-life experience they need to become effective professionals. Some practitioners are taking a critical look at how to design library education in a way that opens doors to dedicated information professionals rather than creating barriers.

Jennifer A. Dixon is Electronic and Serials Librarian, Maloney Library, Fordham University Law School, New York

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This is an excellent article. I trained as a library technician, and I am curious as to what MLIS students ARE learning in their practicums/internships, if they aren't learning the skills that libraries need. Is there an inherent trust issue with seasoned librarians and students that stymies the opportunity to learn and make meaningful contributions to their sponsoring library? Is there a lack of communication between hiring librarians and program directors as to what should be taught in class? I would have to look, but perhaps there should be courses in Project Management, Managerial Accounting/Budgeting, Operations, etc. that are tailored for MLIS students (if such courses don't already exist). The idea that some schools are setting their students up for failure is rather discouraging.

Posted : May 17, 2018 06:04

Suzanne Stauffer

Everyone interviewed for this article is an academic librarian. It would be instructive to ask public librarians about this issue. Our school does not require an internship in large part because the vast majority of our students (80%+) are already working in libraries, primarily public, and some of them have graduate assistantships in the university libraries. The few who are not working in libraries are encouraged to complete an internship. The terms "internship" and "practicum" are used interchangeably in the educational sense. Some schools use the term "internship," some "practicum." For a long time, we used "field experience." The university has now required that we use the term "internship." The federal government has rules and regulations governing academic internships. Students who are getting credit toward a degree for the internship are not and cannot be employees. If they are paid, they then become employees, regardless of what the job title is. https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm An internship that is independent of schoolwork is, well, independent of school work. Libraries and other institutions would have to offer those. Unlike medical schools, LIS programs do not include "teaching libraries," although that has been suggested in the past. The argument that internships mean that students are paying to work for free and so cannot afford to is specious. Students pay for every course they take and they are expected to spend three hours per credit hour doing work for that class. The real problem is scheduling the internship, when many rural and branch libraries are open restricted hours. Also, many do not have degreed librarians on staff.

Posted : May 11, 2018 08:34


Here in Ontario the terms "field experience" or "field placement" are used in 2-year college diploma programs, where "practicum" is used in graduate programs. The same rules apply, though, as far as I'm aware. You can't be paid by the sponsoring institution while you are completing your field experience/practicum, but they are more than welcome to hire you when your term is over.

Posted : May 11, 2018 08:34



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