Sunday, January 21, 2018

Exploitation and Internships: Evaluating the Exploitative Nature of Internships in Archival Environments from a Marxist Critical Standpoint by Sakena Al-Alawi

Archivists are constantly collecting, arranging, describing, digitizing, creating finding aids, and making archival collections accessible online. Their duties are labor-intensive, time-consuming, and require a specific set of skills and a significant amount of education. Some digital archivists are compensated or marginally acknowledged for their part in research, but a majority of their labor goes unrecognized. Volunteers and archival student interns receive even more subsistent compensation in the form of class credit for their work, yet the institution gets something more valuable—their labor. Separately, their labor is worth about equal exchange for what they are given in terms class credit, but their accumulated labor creates the very research that builds capital for the institution. I use Marxist critical theory to dissect student and volunteer digital archival labor in academic institutions to determine if they are being exploited. If so, is exploitation unavoidable? Is there a place for neoliberal, bourgeois ideology in digital archival environments?
Archival student interns and volunteers are neither hired by the university nor are they contracted freelancers, their labor is not as easily quantifiable as regularly paid archivists. Volunteers can give their time in exchange for just the experience or their enjoyment. Sometimes, students volunteer their labor for the same reasons as regular volunteers or they can use their archival experience on their curricula vitae to show prospective employers. Both laborers have the potential to earn wages or an exchange of equal value.[1] This earning potential affords student interns and volunteers the label of wage laborer, but I would go further in complicating whether or not their labor is being exploited by institutions in the same way that the proletariat’s labor is exploited through competitive antagonism in Marx and Engels’s Manifesto. The capitalist uses the labor of the proletariat and the proletariat uses the capital from the capitalist in an attempt to gain status, fueling competition between proletariats and the distinct classes.[2]
In the case of the volunteer, there is not so much competition as there is a love of their labor. Volunteers are enthusiasts. For a student, in terms of class credit, all are required to do the archival labor as part of an assignment, therefore there is no competition unless the student is interning, mirroring the paid archivist. When their labor is commodified is when exploitation occurs. Thus, exploitation is situational.[3] In Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives, Michelle Moravec illustrates how student labor is situationally exploitative:
While there are clearly benefits to students from meaningful engagement in crowdsourcing projects, the authors of ‘A Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights’ argue that students should not be required to perform digitisation or other routine tasks, which could be construed to include transcription, without pay as part of an internship or class project. […] Cifor and Lee note ‘neoliberal models for archival labour, which favour outsourcing and costing above all else, can also serve to support unjust and damaging institutions.[4]

The experience and knowledge students gain from their archival labor is immeasurable, but what the institutions gain from their labor is obvious and can be exploitative if pay is not introduced into the relationship. However, the only way institutions can make these provisions is if they can get the funding. In most cases, funding only comes when institutions have something to bring to the table by way of recognition and social power. Without exploiting the labor of students, production is slow and slow archival work means cutbacks. Institutions themselves are folded into the struggle of the factory system where the institution seeks to create more subsets of labor, dividing work amongst many student laborers to produce immediate results that they can show benefactors for funding.[5] As a result, they feed into the pre-established system that has devalued their institution and the archivists position. The bourgeois of Marx’s era has evolved into a neoliberal bourgeois class that has the technology to “obliterate all distinctions of labour” but we cannot ask the institution to be the one to make the change.[6]
In The TwitterEthics Manifesto, Dorothy Kim and Eunsong Kim suggest “if we want to transform the space to what we want it to be, we must disrupt the system.”[7] The way in which we can shift this paradigm is by finding a way to even out the exploitation. While opinion is split on both, I propose a fusion of two possible solutions. Firstly, hopefully, through means of pay but if not through means of pay, maybe in the form of acknowledgement. If going through pay, institutions would have to start by leveling the playing field between archivist and intern. This would have to come through the institution itself.[8] Whereas, if we were going to reverse exploitation through acknowledgement, it would come through the likely source of researcher.[9] The researcher is a key player in that they have the ability to change the system from the outside. It cannot be the job of the system to change itself, instead all archival users who access the digitized collection can aid in changing the system by citing and acknowledging archivists who made these collections available online in their papers. Neoliberal ideology is just a reimagining of a failed pre-existing capitalist system, whereas the researcher has the ability to create a new system much similar to the communism of Marx and Engels. Like Marx and Engels’ Manifesto, archival scholars’ writings can bring awareness to this imbalance of power. Together, both solutions can bring about change.

[1] Karl Marx, “The Critique of Capitalism: Wage Labour and Capital,” In The Marx-Engels Reader, Part II: (New York: WW Norton, 1978), 204.
[2] Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” 1848. Available at:
[3] David Hesmondhalgh, “User-generated Content, Free Labour and the Cultural Industries,” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization, 10(3,4) (2010): 276-248.
[4] Michelle Moravec, “Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives,” Australian Feminist Studies, 32(91-92) (2017): 192.
[5] Marx and Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party.”
[6] Marx, “The Critique of Capitalism: Wage Labour and Capital.”
[7] Dorothy Kim and Eunsong Kim, “Twitter Ethics Manifesto,” 2014. Available at:
[8] Stacie Williams, “Implication for Archival Labor.” 2016. Available at:
[9] Moravec, “Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives.”

Hesmondhalgh, David. “User-generated Content, Free Labour and the Cultural Industries.” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization, 10(3,4) (2010): 276-248. 

Kim, Dorothy and Kim, Eunsong. “TwitterEthics Manifesto.” 2014. Available at:

Marx, Karl. “The Critique of Capitalism: Wage Labour and Capital.” In The Marx-Engels 
Reader. (New York: WW Norton, 1978), Part II: 203-217. 

Marx, Karl and Engels, Fredrick. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” 1848. Available at:

Moravec, Michelle. “Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives.” Australian Feminist 
Studies, 32(91-92) (2017): 186-201. 

Williams, Stacie. “Implication for Archival Labor.” 2016. Available at: 


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