The Unmentored Intern

(Not to sound like Andy Rooney, but) I get a lot of letters at this time of year. Really, it’s more like emails and phone calls. These calls, from well-meaning school administrators, principals, and HR offices from public, private and charter schools, tend to share a common theme: interns. They want graduate student interns to run their school libraries.

To be fair, these folks are responding to a real problem with what they believe is a viable solution. Budgets are being slashed, they are struggling to staff their schools, and they figure that rather than “excess” (one of our euphemisms here in NYC for “let go”) a classroom teacher, they can get rid of the librarian and keep the space running with a bright and eager graduate student.

However, this doesn’t work for a few reasons. First, if the school is a public school, certification is mandatory for all teachers, in both classrooms and libraries. If a student intern is working alone in the library, and is not certified, this is a violation of NYSED mandate. (Moreover, public secondary school libraries in New York State are mandated to have a certified LMS once they enroll more than 100 students, so many schools are in violation of this mandate simply by excessing their librarian; see these regulations and these more specific to school librarians).

Second, and more troubling to me as a teacher-librarian educator, is the fact that these internships assume that student interns can run a library based on their sheer ingenuity, without any supervision or mentorship. At SILS, as in most teacher or teacher-librarian education programs, the student teaching experience is the cornerstone of our curriculum. We pair our students with experienced LMS’s (3 years certified, per NYSED) who can model both their administrative and pedagogical skills. Working with mentors means that student teachers experience modeling, receive valuable feedback, and develop a reflective practice that helps to bridge their role as a (graduate) student and teacher.

Finally, interns are a source of unpaid labor. As Steven Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times last spring, in our difficult economic times, internships are proliferating. He notes that it is troubling that such internships are often offered up as the gateway to gainful employment in your chosen field, yet they are only accessible to those who can afford to work for free. More troubling in the context of schools is the statement this makes about the extent to which we value school librarians as professionals.

This issue isn’t unique to the school library. I recently responded to a post on our school’s listserv for a library intern to point out the legal tension with students working unsupervised in a library and make clear that SILS can’t give credit for such internships as practica. I received a dozen messages thanking me for making a statement, and a majority of them weren’t from my school library advisees. Students remarked that the dearth of jobs but glut of unpaid internships were causing them to question the point of graduate study beyond providing a free labor force in the positions they’d actually like to occupy professionally.

I will be the first person to extol the virtues of my grad students (both the school library and the general SILS population whom I teach). They are bright, creative, talented and eager to gain the experiences that will help them in the job market. But placing interns in positions that one belonged to salaried librarians isn’t preparing them for the job market, and it doesn’t seem to be preparing a job market for them.

About Jessica Hochman

I am an assistant professor at Pratt Institute in the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) where I also coordinate the LMS Program (school librarians, for the uninitiated). I live in Brooklyn, NY.
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