elizabeth catte

The public history job board that’s killing our field


Over at the job board for the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), the opportunity of a lifetime: an unpaid internship with the Montana Heritage Commission that is 40 hours a week for 5 months, working among rodent droppings during the peak of winter. Housing is provided. Duties including moving and cataloguing artifact collections, which we are told in the job ad “takes time, money, and people.” How much money? Well, using embarrassingly low estimates, around $16,000 at least in wages that will go unpaid under the guise of gaining of professional experience and exposure – and no, not just exposure to the elements and animal waste. The kind of exposure that, in a better world, would help you earn a job where people actually pay you to perform vital employment functions.

According to the Department of Labor, there are six criteria that must be met for a private sector unpaid internship to be considered legal, and you can read them here. Legalities become more complicated when dealing with non-profit and government partners, but we can still use two of the above criteria as a general sniff test: 1) The internship experience is to the benefit of the intern and 2) The employer that provides training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded. I am comfortable stating that it does not take 800 hours for an individual to learn how to catalogue artifacts in a database, so what we very clearly have is an advertisement for work the Montana Heritage Commission needs performed and doesn’t want to compensate. That might not be illegal, but it is deeply unethical. If this were a private sector job, it would likely be an employee misclassification and fall under policies regarding wage theft.

But this grey area does not seem to be a problem for AASLH, which continues to feature positions such as this on their very popular job board. The last time I contacted them with concerns, this ad was in circulation, which offered candidates $100 for a 40 hour week at the George Ranch Historical Park in Texas. Their response to me was a pat on their back for paying their own interns, which I assume is meant to be taken as the weakest sort of leading by example. The fact that other professional organizations filter or decline to advertise unpaid work and work that offers compensation that isn’t commensurate with experience doesn’t really register with them.

You probably already know the range of options you have before you if you find this find of behavior problematic. Some people will and have suspended their memberships, others want to be the change from within. Many good folks are doing a better job coaching students and those new to the field about the value of their labor. And me? I’m just here to say that there is no universe in which it is appropriate to ask an individual to work full time for 5 months for no pay and any person or organization that does has no business being an advocate for the field.

Let me tell you a difficult secret: it is not possible to value history while contributing to the worsening material conditions of historians. This formula does not work, the math is broken, and you do not want to live in a world that is absent of historians. For one thing, a world without historians has no need for professional organizations to advocate on their behalf and won’t place prestige on their expensive accreditation programs. Just because people like me are the minute hand on the Doomsday clock, sweeping just that much faster around the dial, doesn’t mean your hour isn’t coming too.