An archivist maintains repositories of historical documents, making sure they're properly preserved and cataloged.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.