Career Strategies for Librarians
The Internship Voyage: Shipwreck or Smooth Sailing?
Muriel K. Wells

     Have you decided to embark upon an internship as part of your LIS education? If so, will your
internship be mundane and ordinary or will it be creative and beneficial? Do you want to spend your time
doing busywork or do you want to come away with nuggets of gold?  What you take away from your
internship will depend upon what you put into it. If you want the gold, treat this experience as if it were a
real professional position. Act, dress, speak, and contribute as though you are a member of the staff, not
a visitor or volunteer.

     Maybe you are one of the many people who enter this profession as a third or fourth career, having
never worked in a library. You may be wondering if the library is really a good fit for you. If so, then the
internship is a very critical aspect of your LIS education. It may be your proving ground to find out whether
or not you are truly cut from librarian (or information professional, if you prefer) cloth.

     Herein lies the story of how I steered my internship over calm waters and crashing waves. With a little
preparation and thoughtfulness, you too, can be at the helm of your internship.

Proactive Interview

     Approach your initial meeting with the internship site coordinator as though it were an actual job
interview. There is no such thing as too much practice. Dress in a manner befitting an interview for a
position as a professional librarian.

     Go in prepared to discuss what you have to offer in terms of your previous experiences, education,
and careers. Your hosts want you to benefit richly from this experience, but they cannot read your mind.
Tell the supervisor about your strengths and weaknesses, and about what you hope to gain from your
time there. I was very honest about my area of weakness, which benefited me later because my mentors
arranged some assignments that helped me strengthen that skill. Don’t let a communication gap get in
your way. Together you can tailor an internship experience best suited to your needs.

Taking the Initiative

     Do you want to make a lasting impression?  Then go the extra mile or two. When given projects,
assess how you might go beyond just meeting the requirements. Take a chance, be creative, and think
outside of the box.     

During my internship, two of my mentors wanted to look at new and innovative ideas used by other
academic libraries in their instruction programs to see what they might incorporate into their program. My
task was to study several U.S. academic library instruction programs. I was to look at their websites and
compose a checklist of ten to fifteen aspects of these instruction programs.

     As requested, I chose seven instruction programs to look at and constructed a twenty-one point
checklist. Then without the knowledge of my mentors I carried the research much further. I expanded the
study to include the extent to which each library implemented the ACRL standards and guidelines for
library instruction, as well as an in-depth look at some of the really innovative and successful
components of some of the programs.  I also conducted telephone and email interviews with several
library instruction coordinators and completed a literature review on the topic.  Not only was I finishing
the assignment, but I was adding to my knowledge of the topic at the same time.

     When I confessed my extra work to one of the librarians, she suggested that I present my findings to
the library staff. What began as a one-page checklist evolved into a 30-minute, 38-slide PowerPoint
presentation.  Since most academic library interviews include some type of presentation, this was a
golden opportunity for practice. Best of all, not only did the librarians attend, the dean was there as well.
Just as if this were a real interview presentation, the librarians and dean interrupted several times with
questions and suggestions. One suggestion was that I carry on this research further with the goal of
writing an article.

     All of these results came from simply taking the initiative to be creative and go a few extra miles
above and beyond expectations.  How could you turn a mole hill into a mountain?

The Question Machine

     Ask a librarian. Ask a circulation manager. Ask an interlibrary loan librarian. Ask a head of technical
services.  Ask anyone who will listen to you. You have questions; they have answers. If they do not have
the answer, chances are they either know who does or how you can find it. Isn’t that their business?  

     What is the question? Your questions may range from “What happens when …?” to “How do you …?”
to “Who do you call for …?” While you are in this environment, take advantage of the tremendous
opportunity to ask the experts. After all, this is the information delivery business. You may be surprised to
find where a question may lead you.

     Here is an example of a quite unexpected place that one of my thousands of questions led me. I
asked a library staff member, “Do you know anything about _____ library?” The library in question was
nearby but of a different type. The answer to this question led to more questions and more answers.
Within two weeks all of the information had landed me in that library director’s office, asking more
questions. After an hour of discussion came the most important question of all. It came not from me, but
from the director. She asked, “When do you graduate? I have some librarians planning to retire soon.”
Funny … then I was speechless.

     A job possibility was the result of one little question. What “little” question will you ask and where
might it lead you?

Building Blocks

     As you leave your internship, what relationships will you have built? Will you have established another
link in your network? Again, the approach you take will make the difference. Keep in mind that you will
soon join the ranks of the people from whom you are now learning. You will be their colleague. How will
they remember you? There are many ways to grow your network during your internship.

    During the library instruction research project, I conducted telephone and email interviews with
several librarians around the country. First, I cited them in my research and most of them requested
copies of my work. Second, I sent follow-up thank you notes for their contributions. Third, I continued
corresponding with one of them for several weeks, suggesting that she would be an excellent speaker
for a conference in the planning stages.                         

     I also tried to build my network while answering a survey conducted by the Institute of Museum and
Library Services (IMLS). Completing the survey required me to contact several different offices on our
university campus.  In each instance, I was careful to conduct myself as though I were an employee of
the university. Additionally, whenever I spoke with IMLS staff, I believe they assumed I was a librarian.

     The lasting relationships built in the host site itself may be the most important part of your network.
One of my mentors suggested that she and I collaborate on an article discussing both the mentor and
intern viewpoints.

    What impression have you made? Have you made any impact at all or are you just a passing intern in
the night?  Will the librarians be willing to write recommendation letters for you? Would they like to work
with you on an ongoing basis? The answers are up to you.  

The Finishing Touch

     If possible, take away tangible evidence of your work at the library in which you intern.  Depending
upon the type of library, the possibilities will vary. Keep copies of reports, letters, documents—anything
you personally produce that might enhance your resume. Do not wait until near the end of your internship
to begin thinking about this.  From the very beginning, seek out ways to create original work if the
opportunities do not come your way.

     I was able to leave my internship with the library instruction PowerPoint presentation and all of its
accompanying research, a mock book-purchase order, and an archival collection documented in both
print and online finding guides.

     Just as important are the intangibles you will take away from this experience. If you plan ahead, stay
the course, conduct yourself as a professional librarian, and remain flexible enough to steer around
obstacles, you will leave with not just a few gold nuggets, but an entire treasure chest full.                 

About the Author:

Muriel K. Wells is a former first-grade teacher. She is currently a student in the School of Library and
Information Studies at the University of Alabama. Her areas of interest are both university and military
academic libraries.  She currently researches various aspects of military librarianship including history
and information delivery.  

Article published Oct 2007

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