Mar 02 2009

Learn by Doing: Hands-on education through internships

Published by rachel at 10:01 am under Job Hunting, education

by Eamon Tewell

Education doesn’t take place just in the classroom, and you can take advantage of opportunities for hands-on experience both during and after your LIS education. Without a doubt, internships provide a valuable educational experience. Besides the fact that they are often done for credit in conjunction with LIS coursework, internships are educational in the sense that you learn about librarianship while on the job. What better way to learn than by doing?

The classroom provides an important channel for theoretical learning and information-sharing (whether in a classroom on the quest for your MLIS, or in an online continuing education seminar), but there is simply no replacement for practical on-the-job education. Interns are given the opportunity to work in a learning capacity, rather than being confined by a job description that can limit the ability to work in other areas. Further, interns are often encouraged to rotate among multiple departments or help develop new library projects and initiatives, all of which works to your educational advantage. During an internship at the Veterinary Library of a large university library system, for instance, I had the opportunity to do everything from ILL to instruction (not to mention all that I incidentally learned about animals and veterinary medicine!)

Me? An intern?

Because of the hands-on experience they offer, internships are a top-notch educational opportunity. I recommend that every LIS student do an internship during their MLS, if only to learn more about the wide range of opportunities in libraryland. Your resume and future job search will thank you for it!

Internships, while very important for LIS students, can also be highly beneficial for information professionals at virtually any point in your career. Why go to the trouble of doing an internship if you already have a job, though? If you wish to:

  • Branch out into a new area of librarianship
  • Make strong connections with local librarians and gain professional contacts
  • Pursue an area of interest you don’t have the opportunity to do in your current position
  • Learn about new job opportunities

…then internships are unbeatable! If you have always been curious about programming for teens, wondered whether you would enjoy systems librarianship, or considered working in special collections, internships are an excellent opportunity to satiate your professional curiosity while acquiring new skills at the same time.

Seeking and finding internships

Granted, finding internship sites is no simple task, particularly during troubled economic times. There are, however, many resources that will assist you in the search. Library school job listings are a great place to find employers seeking librarians new to the profession or to a different area of the field. Major job aggregator websites are another option, and are well worth the time it takes to sift through non-library results. Most importantly, talk to colleagues, LIS professors, other students, and anyone else in your network to tell them you’re looking for an internship. These are the people that will pass on to you opportunities they hear about, and knowing is half the battle! To get you started on the hunt for the hands-on version of library education, find selected online resources at the end.

If you have the ability to work without pay, directly contact the library where you would like to intern and pitch the idea of an internship to them. Be prepared with specifics about what you want to accomplish. Would you like to gain experience in technical services, public services, special collections, or another department? What would you like to learn about in that department? Do you want to work on a special project you learned about from the library’s website? Do you want to spend one month, six months, or a year at the internship site? Contacting a library about the possibility of an unpaid internship is especially exciting because the opportunities for where you’d like to gain your practical education are limitless. You never know what opportunity is just waiting to be uncovered!

Make the most out of it

After researching possibilities for internships, crafting cover letters, and some good old-fashioned perseverance, you found an internship. Since you put significant work into securing your internship, it’d be a shame to not utilize this educational opportunity to its fullest potential. Based on my internship experiences, here are some suggestions for making the most of your time and energy.

The best part about internships is that you’re working in a learning capacity. Take advantage of this fact! Ask questions of your supervisor, other librarians, staff, and anyone who can give you insight into working in the library setting that you’re passionate about. I’ve found it helpful as a young librarian to ask other librarians about their career paths — how did they start out in librarianship, and how have they ended up in the position they have today? This helps me to think about my own career and remind myself that we all started out somewhere!

Be professional in your work and interactions with patrons and coworkers. Treat it like a real job.If a position opens up at the library where you are interning, the degree of your professionalism and the quality of your work will directly impact whether you are considered.

If the internship allows, don’t hesitate to suggest ideas for projects that would interest you. Intrigued by instruction? Captivated by cataloging? See if there’s a way for you to be involved. It may not be possible, but it’s worth asking. If you can make your internship projects dovetail with LIS assignments, all the better!

During one internship I was interested in helping staff the library’s chat reference service. All it took was asking my supervisor if there was a way to get involved, and it turned out there were open shifts on the chat service schedule needing to be filled. Not only did I gain experience in an emerging area of reference service, but I was well-prepared for the topics discussed in my Digital Reference class. Along the same lines, volunteer for additional tasks that come your way. This shows your initiative, and there’s no better time than now to expand your skill set!

Library School Job Postings
Indiana University
Rutgers SCILS
Simmons New England Jobline
Texas iSchool Job Web

Library-Specific Jobs
Combined Library Job Postings
Library Job Postings

Major Job Sites


Eamon Tewell is currently Library Intern at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. He obtained his MLS from Drexel University in 2008. Eamon has completed internships at three other academic and research libraries in the past two years, and by this point considers himself to be some sort of internship expert! He can be reached at

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