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What is an Archivist?

Also known as: Preservationist, Museum Archivist, Chronicler.

An archivist is someone who assesses whether a given piece of information is of value, then maintains and stores the information in the appropriate manner. 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.

What does an Archivist do?

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.

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How to become an Archivist

To achieve a successful career as an archivist, 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 to become an archivist 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.

What is the workplace of an Archivist like?

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.


Further Reading

  • Karen Stapley: A Day In The Life Of An Archivist blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk

    I am part of a 13-strong cataloguing team working on material from the India Office Collections that document British Colonial influence in the Gulf region from the 18th to 20th centuries.

  • Jenny Childs: A Day In The Life Of An Archivist blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk

    I work at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections at the University of Birmingham, where our oldest document dates back to the 6th century, and our clay tablets to c2000 BC.

  • Gary Brannan: A Day In The Life Of An Archivist blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk

    Rule 1 of being a local authority Archivist. There is no typical day.

  • Career Spotlight : Historical Researcher / Archivist www.schoolfinder.com

    Lynette is 26, and attended Trent University (1995-1999) for her BA in history and English, and Algonquin College (1999-2001) for her archival technician diploma.

  • An Interview With Giovanna Fossati, Film Archivist And Curator www.movingimagearchivenews.org

    Giovanna Fossati discusses her career path, her responsibilities at EYE, and her advice to students who wish to pursue a career at a film archive or museum.

  • Archivists, Curators, And Museum Technicians www.careerprofiles.info

    Archivists, curators, and museum technicians collect and safeguard rare or significant documents or objects to be displayed or stored.

  • So, What Exactly Does An Archivist Do? anthroarchivist.wordpress.com

    This post is inspired by how many library school students and librarians have no real idea of what archivists do and why — a description of archives doesn’t seem to make it to any intro classes. Below is a brief overview.

  • Some Archival Career Advice siarchives.si.edu

    The Smithsonian Institution Archives receives dozens of inquiries every year from students and recent graduates about the archives profession and how to become an archivist. Since this is such a popular topic, we decided to make our responses to the most common questions available to a wider audience.

  • So You Want To Be An Archivist: An Overview Of The Archives Profession www2.archivists.org

    Archives are the non-current records of individuals, groups, institutions, and governments that contain information of enduring value.

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