February 18, 2018

Avoiding the Black Swan Approach to Interns | From the Bell Tower

The Black Swan case brings to light a higher education tradition that needs closer examination and possible rethinking. Academic librarians who supervise student interns will want to make sure they follow recommended practices for productive internship experiences.

The Black Swan case has focused considerable national attention on the place of unpaid internships in the college student’s educational life cycle. In September 2011, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman sued Fox Searchlight, a movie production firm, claiming that their unpaid internships were useless and that they performed menial chores usually completed by paid employees. The two were little more than gophers on the film set, running for lunches, answering phones, and emptying trash cans. They gained little exposure to the craft of movie production. Nearly two years later, a judge ruled in favor of Glatt and Footman, deciding that Fox Searchlight should have paid the two, since they were treated like regular employees. Employers, when accused of exploiting interns, often defend the practice by claiming that their college interns received course credit in exchange for employment. This case, and the resulting controversy it created, should be of interest to academic librarians who offer internships—usually paid but possibly unpaid.

Takeaways From Black Swan

How significant is the problem? Employment experts estimate that undergraduates work at more than one million internships a year, an estimated half of which are unpaid, according to Intern Bridge, a research firm. I see two big takeaways. First, when we invite interns to work at our libraries, it should be a valuable learning experience that contributes to their education and employability. If an unpaid intern merely substitutes for a vacant position, there’s a problem. Second, it’s best for the intern’s home institution to take an active interest in what’s happening at the library and the nature of the internship. One of the significant questions to emerge from the Black Swan case is whether higher education’s current internship practices are in need of review. A major concern is that colleges and universities are complicit in allowing employers to take advantage of the students they supply for internships.

Higher Ed’s Response

The bottom line is that no college has ever been taken to court over unpaid internships. The Black Swan case was strictly corporate and there’s a reason: neither Glatt nor Footman were currently enrolled college students. The lines are blurring between volunteers like Glatt and Footman and the type of educational internships facilitated through most college career offices. Where higher education gets into shaky territory is in arranging for internships for which students pay tuition and earn academic credit for placement into unpaid positions. The institution and the employer are benefiting at the student’s expense. There’s a growing debate about how, as a society, we should be managing student internships in ways that avoid exploitation. One obvious approach to avoid Black Swan entanglements is to offer only paid internships. Since that is not always possible, the next best thing is for internship sponsors to follow a set of six guidelines for a fair internship. Look for colleges and universities to enforce new rules guiding acceptable practices for internships—with a retreat from tuition-funded interning.

Supporting Our Students

Much of the negative press about unpaid internships, largely the result of Black Swan, is actually likely to have a positive outcome. Owing to the outrage over unpaid interns, there is a growing scrutiny around higher education’s practices concerning interns and the exchange of tuition for a credit-earning internship. Higher education is most vulnerable to attack when it serves as the enabler of unpaid, exploitative internships, by pointing students to them or, even worse, establishing relationships with organizations that ultimately exploit students. Students routinely report that the vast majority of the internships they see advertised, often through career centers, are unpaid. The Fair Pay Campaign is a grassroots student project to create awareness about unpaid internships that will attempt to encourage employers to end the practice. Fair Pay is going right to the top with a campaign to ask the White House to start paying its interns.

It’s Litigious Out There

Not to frighten academic librarians who supervise interns, but the Black Swan case has opened up the door to a whole new wave of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns who claim they were used, treated badly, and have nothing to show for it. I believe that most academic librarians actively seek to create library internships for the best reason—because they want to give back to the profession by helping someone new to have every opportunity to learn and be well prepared to enter the library job market. That desire is either driven by wanting to provide an experience similar to one previously enjoyed—or to offer one hoped for but sorely missed. But in our eagerness to help, we also need to think carefully about the internships we develop. If the capacity to make it a paid internship is there, by all means make it happen. If not, unpaid internships will still attract candidates, because aspiring academic librarians know well the value of on-the-job experience. But paid or unpaid, the host library needs a clear, well-articulated plan for a learning experience that delivers robust, career-advancing exposure. If there’s any doubt that that’s currently the case—and perhaps an assessment is a good starting point—then seeking out academic librarians who run model internships is recommended. And for those deserving of it, hosts should consider what they can do after the internship ends to help the intern find a job.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. FormerLibraryIntern says:

    I had a very similar experience as an academic library intern two years ago. The university offering the internship was piloting a “take the library to the students” program in which MLS students provided evening reference hours at a satellite location in the largest dorm area on campus. The agreement I had w/the supervising librarian had me working two evenings in the satellite center, & several hours a week on the actual reference desk in the library, as I wanted to be an academic reference librarian. Halfway through the internship, I still had not gotten any hours on the reference desk, & I asked (again) to please be put on the schedule. The supervisor abruptly told me that I wasn’t going to get any hours on the desk & it was my responsibility to find projects in the library to fulfill the other hours of my internship. So I filed five years’ worth of updates to a series of manuals, wrote recommendations for acquisitions, & contacted another librarian to ask when I could work on another project (& never heard back from that librarian). Near the end of my internship, I was working on a presentation on the “take the library to the students” program, to be delivered at a state-wide conference, & the supervisor told me that I could not count those hours toward fulfilling my internship, & that as I hadn’t satisfied my hours, I would not be getting credit for the internship. I was supposed to graduate the next day. Fortunately my advisor interceded & I was grudgingly given credit for the internship, & I graduated when I was supposed to, but the situation ruined Graduation Day for me, & I still had no reference desk experience.

  2. I have never been an intern, but we have hosted students working on their practicum, or students with little experience interested in volunteering, to gain some. I always look to these students as future employees and we try to introduce them to the many aspects of the job that they may encounter in the real world. In your experience the supervisor sounds like she felt threaten, otherwise why would she have treated you like that…it is just wrong. Since your presentation was about the program you worked with, you definitely should have gotten credit and praise. The library world is small and she sounds like she was burning her bridges faster than helping you build yours. Some of our volunteers and students do some “grunt” work, but that too is part of the job. I never asked any of them to do a task my staff wasn’t already doing. I also had the students work with several of my staff because I think it is important to learn about the many personalities that make up a working team. They all have different learning styles and skills, but overall we produce what we are expected often above and beyond!