Career Strategies for Librarians
Task-Specific Internships: Focused Experiences, Expansive Benefits
by Matthew O’Connor

As the job market for academic librarians grows increasingly more competitive – especially for new
graduates with only modest experience – the prospect of venturing on an employment search is a
daunting one.  

To appear more attractive to search committees, internships have long been tools used by the “new” to
flesh out otherwise sparse resumes. While there is no arguing their significance and impact on both the
intern and the library, these experiences can be somewhat generic, especially if they are too broad and
from the “do anything for experience and a reference” mode.

In order to tailor one’s experience to more closely match possible fields of interest, task-specific
internships are effective ways to beef up the resume, network, and systematically explore focused areas
of librarianship.

Unlike traditional internships where students are devoted to a library over an extended period of time
(whether a semester or indefinitely) and perform a wide array of duties and functions, task-specific
internships can be much more focused, less of a commitment, and customized to both the library and
prospective intern.

These types of experiences are best suited for more seasoned MLS students who already possess a
solid knowledge base in academic librarianship, but wish to fill in potential gaps, develop niches, and
cultivate certain specialties.

Selected Styles

Reference Internship

Reference experience is probably the most beneficial to have, as most libraries require some type of
reference work. Therefore, no amount of pre-professional experience behind a desk is ever enough, so
volunteering time, even if it’s for a week or two, could have a huge impact on one’s professional career.

To this end, try volunteering at the beginnings or ends of semesters, as these tend to be very busy times
at academic reference desks. Send out letters of interest early on and specifically offer reference support
for a few days or weeks – the time frame is entirely negotiable.

Be flexible as to availability and scheduling and prepare by reviewing the institution’s collections and
electronic resources in order to provide a level of service the library can be proud of.

Collection Development Internship

Working with collections is tricky, and it’s often not the first career choice people make coming right out
of library school.  However, many academic librarians have collection development responsibilities,
whether they be formal or informal, so experience and exposure is helpful to have.

There are many different aspects to collection development that are restricted to staff only, so the options
for interns and volunteers might be limited. However, most academic libraries do conduct weeding and
evaluation projects during the summer months.  

Offer services for a week or two during June, July, or August to help weed, conduct an inventory, or
perform a collection analysis.  This might be a shelf availability study or something else that can be done
with relative independence, but will benefit the library.

Instruction Internship

Instruction experience for MLS students is quite possibly the most difficulty type to obtain. Coming right
out of library school, many students do not possess the skills and techniques, as well as the character
and personality traits, to effectively teach classes.  

And similar to reference and collection work, instruction is almost always required and expected in
academic librarianship. Therefore, again, as much exposure as possible to the classroom is essential.

The beginning of a semester, especially the fall semester, is when library instruction explodes, so offer
services during this time frame. However, very few libraries will allow interns whom they hardly know to
conduct a session.  

Therefore, expect to be allowed only to rove and observe.  This is still valuable experience. There are
multiple theories and methods to library instruction and witnessing as many as possible may help you
develop your own style.

Other Internships

This theory can be applied to several other areas of academic librarianship, including marketing and
outreach, technical services, circulation, and web development. The opportunity to customize an
experience to the needs of both the intern and the institution is an attractive one.

Regardless of the type of internship, respect and gratitude from both entities is critical to a successful


By being exposed to a wider array of libraries, librarians, and patrons, the intern has abundant
opportunities to network. Not only will the experience immediately help the intern, but the more people
the intern meets, the better chance he or she has of gaining an inside track on an open position in the

What these focused experiences do, among other things, is allow the intern to systematically and
exclusively explore one area of academic librarianship. This has substantial future benefits for the
participant. Very early on in his or her career, the intern should begin to contemplate career paths and
begin to eliminate areas that are not “good fits.” These experiences will aid the process.

This type of condensed work also occupies less time than traditional internships. Commitment could be
only a few hours, days, or weeks in order to fully maximize the experience. This allows for more time to
pursue other interests while simultaneously beefing up the resume.


While these task-specific internships have many strong and positive attributes, they cannot replace the
experience one would gain over an extended period of time at singular library. Benefits such as
organizational culture awareness, interpersonal communication skills, and personal comradery and
friendship would be noticeably absent from these shorter adventures.

Finally, stay positive when looking to secure something like this. Be prepared to receive very few
responses. Many academic librarians are overworked and under tenure-track pressure, so responding
to a cold letter from a library student may not be a high priority for them.

Regardless, be flexible and respectful when volunteering. A few days or weeks at a library could
someday lead to a permanent position.

About the Author:

Matthew O’Connor is a reference librarian at Penn State University’s Wilkes-Barre campus. He received
his MLIS from Wayne State University in Detroit in 2003.

Article published July 2004

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.