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How to become an archivist

May 10, 2022 · 5 min read · By ASU Online

Learn the essentials about the career of an archivist: Read on to learn about what archivists do, the skills needed to become one, and the degree programs that can prepare you for an archivist career.

 

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An archivist maintains repositories of historical documents, making sure they're properly preserved and cataloged. Most archivist career paths are associated with museums and universities. However, you may also find employment at large corporations, government institutions or elsewhere. This occupational versatility can be a valuable asset in a competitive economy.

As an archivist, you can pursue a role that aligns with your particular interests. As a Civil War expert, for example, you could leverage your understanding of the social and political landscape of the 19th century to find work coordinating educational and public outreach programs, or cataloging personal correspondences between military figures or using treasurer's checks, newspapers and brochures.

Another aspect of archival work is helping researchers find documents. Archivists have unique knowledge of the collections they manage, allowing them to make connections between sets of documents that outside researchers may not be able to make.

"The past is messy," says Peter Van Cleave, clinical assistant professor of history and director of online programs at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. "The past takes skill to understand, and it takes skill to ask the right questions, to think about documents in the right way, to think anew maybe about a topic that you thought you knew a lot about."

Pursuing an archivist career requires a diverse set of technical proficiencies, as well as historical knowledge and professional experience, especially for high-level positions. Earning a history degree, either at the bachelor's or master's level, can help you gain the technical skills and historical knowledge you'll need as an archivist.

 

What does an archivist do?

Nearly all archivist careers involve a diverse array of tasks and responsibilities. These tasks extend beyond cataloging documents and organizing electronic repositories. In fact, archivists often provide reference services to students, historians and members of the public. They use their knowledge and familiarity with archived materials to locate relevant sources for researchers and graduate students. They may also provide assistance to museum and university staffers who are developing educational programs.

Archivists evaluate the authenticity and significance of records and other artifacts obtained by their institutions. They make recommendations for every item's long-term safekeeping. This usually includes creating film and digital copies that can be added to existing databases. Once records and artifacts have been preserved, they're generally made available to the public.

  • Other duties of an archivist include:
  • Authenticating and appraising historical documents and objects.
  • Creating and administering electronic databases and records.
  • Developing and directing public exhibits and presentations.
  • Locating new resources to expand the institution's archive.
  • Organizing and classifying archival materials to improve their searchability.

Archivists spend most of their time working in a self-directed capacity. Yet, they regularly collaborate with museum curators and university staff to design exhibits and organize events. Many archivists generally possess above-average reading skills, interpersonal skills and detail-oriented thinking. These characteristics enable archivists to create the detailed policies that govern public and private access to sensitive materials. Additionally, archivists may develop educational programs for a range of different audiences.

An archivist looks through old books on a shelf.

How much do archivists make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median salary for a group that includes archivists, curators and museum workers was $50,120 in 2021. However, positions at the local, state and federal levels may offer higher pay rates to qualified candidates.

Becoming an archivist can be a profitable move, as the BLS anticipates 19% job growth for this profession between 2020 and 2030, which is much higher than the 8% average for all occupations. This positive career outlook for archivists is largely a result of the increased demand for electronic records in commercial industries. Still, it's likely that many cultural heritage institutions will continue to seek qualified candidates to manage their collections, too.

Archivist salaries can vary widely because of specializations in the field and the diversity of the types of organizations that hire them. While archivists often oversee document repositories for museums, universities, historical societies and government agencies, there are also consulting opportunities with private collectors and nonprofit organizations.

 

What are an archivist's skills?

Those who pursue an archivist career path often have characteristics and personal traits that help them perform at a high level. These may include organizational competencies and a background in historical studies. Since this profession also involves responsibilities beyond cataloging and preserving documents, it's important to consider the specific qualities that may contribute to your long-term success.

Analytical thinking. A knack for systematic problem-solving is valuable. When records are difficult to locate, archivists must be able to take quick action. This also helps when cataloging new acquisitions and building targeted education programs.

Attention to detail. Archivists rely on their observation skills in appraising historical documents and helping researchers find relevant sources. Working with databases also requires an aptitude for detailed organizational frameworks.

Collaboration. Many institutions employ several archivists with different areas of expertise to maintain shared databases. The ability to excel in collaborative environments is essential to most archivist career paths, because preserving the integrity of large collections requires open communication and teamwork.

Independence. Despite the group dynamic, archivists perform a variety of self-directed tasks. Professionals in this field must be able to manage their time effectively and complete projects on schedule.

 

What degree do you need to become an archivist?

Job recruiters typically prefer candidates who have a degree in history, library science, archival science or another related field. They also seek candidates who have some experience in working with database management and basic computer skills.

ASU Online's Bachelor of Arts in history degree program can help you gain the historical knowledge and research skills needed to pursue a career as an archivist.

If you want to take their archival qualifications further, ASU Online’s Master of Arts in history provides the knowledge and experience required to excel in an archivist role. You can learn how to appraise and preserve historically valuable documents as well as pursue learning opportunities in historical methods, global studies and interpretative trends.

In today's competitive job market, it's important to assemble the right combination of expertise, knowledge and experience. An undergraduate or graduate degree in history can be a valuable asset for students wondering how to become an archivist.

"The past never comes to us perfectly organized and structured," noted professor Van Cleave. "We so often only get it in glimpses or scraps of paper, and it is the role of the archivist to bring these fragments together in a coherent manner."

How to become a museum curator

A career as a museum curator is a way to bring history to people from all walks of life. Read on to learn about what museum curators do, degree programs that can prepare you for the role, and more.

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