Archivist: job description

Archivist: job description

Archivists are responsible for the provision, care and management of permanent collections of information that are intended to preserve the past and allow others to discover it.
Once qualified, archivists can work for employers of any size in the private and public sectors.

What does an archivist do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Archivists are responsible for assembling, cataloguing, preserving and managing valuable collections of historical information. Archivists work with a wide variety of public and private sector organisations, and once qualified, may move between a variety of organisations, roles and specialisations. Key duties of the job include:

  • evaluating, selecting, retrieving and arranging materials
  • answering enquiries
  • organising publicity events such as talks and exhibitions
  • making the archives accessible to a wide range of users
  • storing and preserving perishable documents
  • producing teaching materials
  • identifying and bidding for funding
  • negotiating the acquisition of new collections
  • supervising staff and budgets

Archivists may specialise in the care and provision of certain types of information, such as maps, videos or parchment, or in information relating to a specific subject or area of interest. This is particularly true of large archive services with several departments. However, it must be noted that the majority of services require a single archivist to assume multiple roles; there may be some overlap with record management roles in particular.

Once qualified, archivists can work for employers of any size in the private and public sectors, but they may need to be flexible in terms of location.

Vacancies are advertised in local and national newspapers, and the Archives & Records Association’s (ARA) recruitment bulletins (available to members). Details of traineeships and volunteering opportunities are available online through national organisations such as the ARA, which publishes a list of placement opportunities on its website. Speculative applications are recommended; you could use the ARCHON directory on the National Archives website to find contact details for individual archives.

Typical employers of archivists

  • Local and central government
  • Specialist and national repositories, such as the Public Record Office and the British Library
  • Universities
  • Charities
  • Libraries
  • Religious institutions and bodies
  • Large organisations and companies, from the NHS to multinational commercial firms
  • Museums

Qualifications and training required

You can only become an archivist if you have an undergraduate degree followed by an ARA accredited postgraduate diploma. Your undergraduate degree can be in any discipline, although history, English, law, classics or information management subjects may be advantageous.

Postgraduate courses are competitive, so it’s advised to gain some relevant work experience before you apply. This could be paid or unpaid experience, and should be undertaken in an archives department rather than a library. Postgraduate qualifications may be studied on a full-time, part-time or distance-learning basis, although the latter must be studied in relation with a consenting archive service.

An interest and awareness of history and the value of archives as evidence may prove advantageous. While knowledge of Latin may still be useful in some positions, it is no longer essential.

Key skills for archivists

Employers seek people who are:

  • inquisitive
  • methodical and logical
  • organised, with excellent administrative skills
  • highly IT-literate
  • able to work in a team
  • friendly and able to relate well to a wide range of users
  • excellent verbal communicators
  • able to carry out independent research
  • forward-thinking, with an ability to anticipate and prepare for changing uses of archived information
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