An archivist is essentially one who assesses whether a given piece of information is of value, and if the piece is determined to be of value, maintains and stores the information in the appropriate manner. Determining whether information is of value varies a great deal depending upon the purpose of the archives being collected. The information that is being examined and maintained can take on any number of forms including documents, letters, photographs, audio recordings and videos. Beyond maintaining the records, an archivist must also ensure that the information is preserved in such a way that it is able to be found, and once found, be understandable.
An archivist's primary responsibility is determining which records are of value. This requires a great deal of understanding of the historical context of the records in question as the historical context reveals the record's relationship to other records, the intended use of the record, and the record creator's underlying motivations. Once a record is determined to be sufficiently valuable to preserve, archivists must describe and arrange the record in such a way that the institution's intended audience is able to access the information and make sense of it. In order to successfully accomplish these tasks, one who works with archives must employ strong organizational techniques and sound management skills.
Several professional fields work closely with archives including the records manager and the historian. While there is a great deal of overlap between these professions, the goals of maintaining archives are certainly distinct. The primary duties of a records keeper include maintaining a large volume of temporary information for large institutions, whereas archives are rather small in number and are collected so that they might be maintained for a lengthy period of time. A historian's primary goal is to examine archives so that historical truths might be derived, whereas the archivist is objectively collecting the data so that it might be thoroughly researched.
To achieve a successful career in archives, one must have a diverse set of skills and abilities. It is absolutely essential that records be maintained carefully and accurately so the ability to interpret data logically is required. On the other hand, interpersonal interaction is also a frequent requirement of archival positions as helping people find and interpret archives is a core responsibility.
Given the historical nature of the position, one must have a solid grasp of history and, in particular, the history surrounding the time period that is relevant to the institution for which the archives are being collected. Frequently, which records are deemed valuable and the way in which they are organized results in emotionally charged reactions. So, an important duty is to delicately handle the politics surrounding the information being collected.
Archives are most often in the form of paper records; however, the means to maintaining accurate records of the archives requires a good deal of technological competency. Furthermore, maintaining paper records is not as simple as filing in the appropriate location. They must be conserved in the appropriate manner so that they do not deteriorate.
In terms of formal education and certification, the requirements vary among institutions and countries. A four-year degree is generally required, and most obtain a master's degree or higher. In the United Kingdom, one can achieve professional certification through the Society of Archivists, while in the United States certification is provided by the Academy of Certified Archivists. In France, there is even a school, Ecole Des Chartes, that offers a diploma of "Archivist-Paleograph". While the specific requirements vary, one must obtain a degree in a relevant field and will most often need to obtain experience in an archival repository prior to achieving the official role of archivist.
The places in which archives are stored are known as 'archival repositories' and vary a great deal. Archival repositories exist for universities, businesses, religious institutions, museums, historical societies, hospitals, and all levels of government. A few are well funded, however the majority of institutions prosper and fail with shifts in the economy as a whole. A large portion of archival work is done within an office setting. For larger institutions, an archivist works alongside other archivists, historians, and assistants. In many archival repositories there are only one or two employees which leads to much of the work being performed independently.