How to become an archivist

Do you enjoy reading old manuscripts? Are you interested in protecting historical documents for future generations?  Becoming an archivist may appeal to you.  In this career, you can use your knowledge and organization skills to preserve important records and artifacts. As an archivist, you are responsible for appraising, cataloging and safeguarding historically valuable materials. This may include letters, diaries and newspapers to analog film and photographs. You may also create and manage electronic databases. This helps ensure that researchers and members of the public have access to digital copies of historic documents and objects. This profession is suited to those who are passionate about preserving the legacy of past societies and cultures.

Most archivist career paths are associated with museums and universities. However, you may also find employment at large corporations, government institutions, hospitals and more. This occupational versatility can be a valuable asset in a competitive economy. That's because you can pursue a role that aligns with your particular interests. You may seek out a specialized position that oversees physical records from a specific era in history. 

For example, let's say you are a Civil War expert. You can leverage your understanding of the social and political landscape of the 19th century to catalog personal correspondences between military figures, treasurer’s checks, newspapers and brochures. You can also use your expertise to coordinate educational and public outreach programs. This may include workshops, lectures and tours. 

Another element of archival work is helping researchers find documents. Archivists have unique knowledge of the collections they manage. This means they can make connections between sets of documents that outside researchers may not be able to make.

Pursuing an archivist career requires a diverse set of technical proficiencies. You'll also need historical knowledge and professional experience, especially for high-level positions. An online Master of Arts in history can provide you with the advanced research competencies and critical frameworks you need. An MA in history may allow you to chart your own educational track by selecting courses that support your employment goals.

Most programs offer foundational classes in public history methodology and global studies. They also include a wide range of electives that cover specific time periods. Additionally, a practicum can help you develop relevant technical experience. These courses provide you with deep historical knowledge and professional expertise. As an archivist, you can use this knowledge to preserve documents and artifacts for future generations.

An archivist searches for a historical manuscript.

A typical day in the life of an archivist

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 also provide assistance to museum and university staff who are developing educational programs.

“The past is messy, 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,” says Dr. 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 also never comes to us perfectly organized and structured,” he added. “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.”

Archivists also evaluate the authenticity and significance of new records and artifacts obtained by their institutions. Then, they make recommendations for every item’s long-term safekeeping. This usually entails the creation of film and digital copies that can be added to existing databases. Once they're preserved, they’re made available to the public. If you’re interested in following an archivist career path, some of the duties you may be responsible for 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 archival materials are written in outdated language. That means archivists generally possess above-average reading skills and detail-oriented thinking. These characteristics also allow archivists to create detailed policies that govern public and private access to sensitive materials. Additionally, archivists may develop educational programs for a range of different audiences.

How much do archivists make and what does the job market look like?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median salary for archivists was $52,240 in 2018. However, positions at the local, state and federal levels may offer higher pay rates to qualified candidates. Becoming an archivist may be a profitable move, as the BLS also reports 14% job growth for this profession between 2016 to 2026. This is considered faster than the average for all occupations. This positive career outlook for the archivist career is largely a result of the increased demand for electronic records in commercial industries. Yet, it’s likely that many cultural heritage institutions will continue to seek qualified candidates to manage their collections.

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

An archivist updates an electronic database.

Skills needed to become an archivist

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

  • 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 when appraising historical documents and helping researchers locate relevant sources. Working with databases also requires an aptitude for detail-oriented frameworks of organization.
  • 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. This is 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 effectively manage their time and complete projects on schedule.

A degree to help you become an archivist

Job recruiters typically prefer candidates who have a master’s degree in history, library science, archival science or another related field. They also seek candidates with some experience working with database technologies. Although tech skills are important to become an archivist, hiring managers tend to prioritize historical knowledge. That's because it’s often easier to train candidates on the use of record management software than it is to build their subject matter expertise.

The ASU Online Master of Arts in history can provide you with the knowledge and experience you need to excel in an archivist role. You can learn how to appraise and preserve historically valuable documents. For those interested in pursuing an archivist career path, the MA in history offers learning opportunities in historical methods, global studies and interpretative trends. You can also choose subject-focused electives that allow you to study the time periods, event

In today’s competitive job market, it’s important to assemble the right combination of expertise, knowledge and experience. This will help you stand out from other applicants. That's why a graduate education can be such a valuable asset for your career advancement.

Sources:

ASU Online – Online Master of Arts in History

Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Archivists by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Archivists by O*Net Online

So You Want to Be an Archivist by Society of American Archivists

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