An Intentionally Designed Internship Program

By Claire Du Laney, Wendy Guerra, and Lori Schwartz

In 2020-2021, Hagel Archivist Lori Schwartz, Digital Initiatives Archivist Wendy Guerra, and Outreach Archivist Claire Du Laney at the University of Nebraska at Omaha supervised projects for student employees, interns, and practicum students from various library programs. As we worked through the list of projects compiled early in the pandemic, we knew this high-intensity, short-term project creation was unsustainable. We needed a structured, well-rounded, and cooperative program for interns and practicum students, whether in-person, remote, or hybrid. Through a year of planning, piloting, and feedback, we developed an “intentionally designed” program, which simplifies the process and provides a mutually beneficial experience for archivist and student.

Through a year of planning, piloting, and feedback, we developed an “intentionally designed” program, which simplifies the process and provides a mutually beneficial experience for archivist and student.

In Spring 2021, we started to merge our disparate efforts to recruit, manage projects, and supervise students. We began development of our intern program by selecting outreach, digital initiatives, and processing as areas of focus since these were our areas of expertise. We created an application and required a resume, cover letter, learning plan, and selected areas of interest to match with projects. The discussion then turned to application logistics, including internship lengths and academic course requirements. We mapped out time estimates and percentages of work so prospective interns would have a sense of the division of projects. This was quickly followed by more in-depth discussion of the areas of focus, the logistics of which were the most complex and crucial of the program elements. We settled on required elements to enhance the experience, deeming readings and informational interviews vital to a well-rounded experience, as they provide opportunities to learn from library professionals. An exit interview and end-of-internship talk on skills and lessons learned would help students and archivists evaluate the program and give the student final learning experiences. 

The concepts of sustainability and ethical work were pillars of this project. In keeping with conversations in the field, we recognized the value of student experience, but were mindful of our work priorities and wellbeing. Invisible archival and student labor were top of mind and a reason we require students be in a library or adjacent program and receive credit, since we cannot pay them. Similarly, our discussions surrounding internship lengths, elements, and ethical considerations were shaped with sustainability in mind. Only a sustainable program is a wise investment of time as we chase a work-life balance. Finally, we sought to emphasize how student work matters both to us and student development, and we wanted to facilitate better connections between ourselves and the students. These goals are illustrated by our supervisory experiences, described below, that informed how we framed the program, leading up to the start of the pilot in summer 2021.

Du Laney’s first student came by chance when she discovered their interest in exhibit design and installation and started a project with her to select materials, create labels, and install a display. Though the student was nervous, trust grew as the student shared about her college experience. Next, Du Laney supervised a student on a complex outreach project. She ended up overwhelming him with too much freedom in selecting where to start his research, and the student produced piecemeal work until Du Laney talked with him about the larger, programmatic deliverables and showed where he made a difference.

Schwartz supervised a practicum student on a last-minute remote processing project. The student gained experience but didn’t benefit from the holistic structure of a program or the mentorship Schwartz would typically try to provide. Schwartz was also supervising student employees on remote work, most of whom were not headed for an archival career. She tried to encourage soft skill development and focused on compassion amidst pandemic stress. One method was to assign multiple projects, so that they could switch tasks during long hours online.

Meanwhile, Guerra’s successive interns helped her implement better methods of supervising remote digital projects. Her first student completed basic metadata entry in our DAM system, but Guerra felt their experience was shallow and that she could improve on delivering instructions. Guerra allowed the next student to work remotely on digital objects while following her video demos and project schedule outlining the skills and software students would learn. Although these plans required more upfront work, the outcome was significantly better. Guerra increased her next student’s responsibilities and access in the DAM system, which was a stretch for Guerra but proved beneficial to the student.

Students […] benefit from specific objectives to help translate their skills to resume content.

Finally, we piloted our program in summer and fall 2021. Our comments here will focus on mentorship and mutually beneficial-related aspects. Guerra supervised the first intern while Du Laney and Schwartz directed side projects. The intern’s remote and onsite schedule allowed him to manage his full-time job while also gaining valuable experience with processing, digitization, and outreach research. Guerra stressed that the intern needed to follow the scheduled hours but understood when a full-time job and classes could lead to adjustments. Importantly, she did not want him to think he could not ask for adjustments. They filled out a learning plan from the student’s home institution and faced the challenge of matching projects with broad learning objectives. She concluded students would benefit from specific objectives to help translate their skills to resume content.

These procedures proved effective. In his exit interview, the intern said, “The largest gap in what I have to offer professionally was practical experience, which I received in droves here,” and then—much to our delight—they were hired at our library a few months later. In retrospect, they attributed their success to the internship.

Their success, along with that of a previous intern (both hired by another department), also led to a practical change in our program description when another intern acted out when they didn’t get called to interview for another position. To better clarify expectations of future interns, we edited our program page to explain that an internship with us does not guarantee they will be considered for openings.

As we mentioned earlier, Schwartz supervised our second pilot intern, who was fully onsite, in processing collections and artifacts, while Du Laney and Guerra focused on directing a range of side projects. We ran into different challenges here. To navigate many projects, Schwartz made a schedule with hours each day the student would devote to processing, outreach, or digitization, and expected the student to follow it. Unfortunately, students ended up going 15 hours over on outreach projects. Alternatively, Du Laney realized how much time social media was taking and resolved to make templates for future projects. Schwartz, meanwhile, saw the benefit in the extra experience, but it hampered her planning for processing. Next time, Schwartz will communicate better with colleagues and emphasize to students the need to follow a mutually agreed upon schedule.

Ultimately, Guerra was able to cover many aspects of digitization with her side project but felt it was a shallow experience that put pressure on her as supervisor. Next time, Guerra will aim to go deeper in fewer areas to help students to gain better familiarity with specific processes. This project has also illustrated the need to stick to the learning plan. In one instance, the intern felt pressured mid-internship by an academic supervisor to increase time digitizing despite the existing plan. For the sustainability of our program (and Guerra’s workload), we stuck to that plan. Thankfully, during their final presentation and exit interview, the intern said that they appreciated the archival knowledge they gained from our assigned readings, and they found the structure of the program helpful. This internship led to another success story at our institution, as the student recently accepted a grant position with us processing collections.

Through the pilots, we developed a well-rounded, structured, and cooperative internship program that benefited both students and archivists. Our emphasis on sustainability and empathy allows us to prioritize communication, manageable projects, and the learning plan. We foresee this program evolving and continuing to support our work and the needs of our students through future internship cycles. 

Claire Du Laney (she/ her) is the Outreach Archivist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Department. She earned her MA in Public History from North Carolina State University in 2018 and her MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019. Her work at UNO includes exhibit creation, archival instruction sessions, and facilitating primary source access and research to the campus and community. Claire is an active member of several professional organizations including the National Council on Public History, the Teaching with Primary Sources Collective, and the Journal of New Librarianship.

Wendy Guerra (she/ her) is the Digital Initiatives Archivist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Department. She earned her MSLS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a specialization in Archival Studies in 2020. Wendy’s work at UNO Libraries focuses on digital access and preservation, with a specific emphasis on collections accessibility for diverse audiences and those with disabilities. She is an active member of the Digital Libraries Federation. 

Lori Schwartz (she/her) is the Hagel and Technical Services Archivist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Department. Prior to 2015, she was Special Projects Archivist at South Carolina Political Collections. She earned her MA in Public History and MLIS from the University of South Carolina in 2004. At UNO, Lori manages the U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel Archives and directs arrangement and description for the department. Lori serves in leadership for the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress and is a member of the Society of American Archivists Committee on Public Policy.