What does an Archivist do?

Sheri Cyprus
Sheri Cyprus
An archivist keeps detailed records of every document, photograph and other items in an archived collection.
An archivist keeps detailed records of every document, photograph and other items in an archived collection.

An archivist is an information professional similar to curators and librarians. Archivists identify, collect, organize, record, describe, preserve and display materials that are of historical value. Basically, an archivist's main duty is to present authentic and relevant slices of history in a cohesive way.

Archivists are knowledgeable in the time period and/or collection topic they archive. They research and source items to be sure the identification of all archival materials is clear. An archivist selects items that fit with an organization's collection. Archivists must keep detailed records of the people, places and dates involved in the chosen items to archive. These items may be handwritten notes, photographs, film or many other possible materials.

Descriptions of items they collect may be placed on company websites or other public locations, or they may be used in museums. An archivist usually writes most of these descriptions. He or she must carefully record and document all details of each archived item in a collection. Preservation is another responsibility of archivists. They're knowledgeable in methods of how to store both flat papers and three-dimensional materials.

An archivist must display collected items in a logical, informative manner. Some archivists assert that a collection of archival items should always tell a cohesive story about its subject and the specific time period. Archivists are required to take professional care in their work and exercise ethics as well as knowledgeable selection in choosing archival quality goods. Archivists are always searching to archive useful items and striving to choose historical materials carefully.

There are two main types of archived collections: circulating and non-circulating. Non-circulating collections may be archived within a certain company or organization. Circulating historical collections are displayed to the public, but are usually carefully preserved so they can't be touched directly. Archivists don't spend all of their work time archiving materials, but are also usually required to attend meetings and industry events regularly. An archivist often manages a staff to help him or her record and preserve historical documents.

Archivist duties can be compared to that of librarians in that both types of information professionals may collect, preserve and display materials for organized public or private access. Archivists and curators' job duties are also similar in that they both tend to work with many different shapes, sizes and categories of materials. However, archivists describe materials much differently than librarians; they also usually work with audio-visual formats with which curators typically don't.

Discussion Comments


Archives deal in materials that do not just have historical value, but have continuing value. Archives can be for reconciliation or social justice and as archivists we need to know what should be created and kept in order for these kinds of purposes to be fulfilled.

This explanation is very paper centric and custodial thinking. Archives are everywhere and exist in some traditions in completely different ways, such as dance, or story. Some archivists perform digital forensics in order to restore or migrate data and understand processes of record keeping in more depth.

It would be great to get this definition updated to suit more contemporary work undertaken by archivists.


I recently saw a job posting for an archive at one of the major state colleges in California. The archive was dedicated entirely to the Grateful Dead and included posters, bootlegs of hundreds of concerts, films, interviews, memorabilia and countless other pieces of ephemera. For the right person this would be a dream job. You would be surrounded by the biggest and most important collection of Grateful dead materials anywhere on earth. I always thought being an archivist would be pretty boring, but I guess if the archive is filled with something interesting it can be a pretty exciting job.


@EdRick - I have some experience in this field because I just graduated with a degree in Library Science. From what I have observed, having a masters degree from an ALA accredited Library Science is the first and most important qualification for getting into an archivists career. There are 30 of these programs across there country and they are relatively cheap and easy to finish. With this degree, it is possible to secure entry level work in most archives.

In order to move up or to find work in more esoteric archives, it is often necessary to have subject expertise including a masters degree in the subject covered within the archive. So if he wants to work in a science archive, he will probably need at least a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry etc. Good luck to him. This is exciting and important work, and for a person with the right temperament it can be a long and fulfilling career.


@EdRick - A friend of mine works in an archives and is currently studying to be a professional archivist. It's a pretty varied field, so the exact education might depend on what area your nephew is interested in. My friend is getting her master's in library science, which I think is pretty typical. She said some of her colleagues studied history and some in the field have PhDs.

An undergraduate with an interest in archives should simply major in the subject s/he finds most interesting--history, literature, political science, and film are all good choices that could have benefits for different kinds of archives. Library and information science programs generally do not require any special undergraduate work, just a degree.

You can get more information about how to prepare from the website of the Society of American Archivists. Which I would have pronounced ar-KIVE-ist, but apparently it's ARK-iv-ist.


My nephew is a college student interested in an archivist career. I don't think he knows much about it; he probably got the idea from a movie or something! But we don't want to discourage him. And it might be a good fit for him. He keeps the most meticulous scrapbooks I've ever seen and is sort of our family historian.

What should he major in to be an archivist? What kind of graduate work is involved?

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    • An archivist keeps detailed records of every document, photograph and other items in an archived collection.
      By: .shock
      An archivist keeps detailed records of every document, photograph and other items in an archived collection.