Archivists are responsible for preserving documents that are important to organisations, families or even countries. Their work could be private, working with individuals and companies, or part of public work, such as maintaining historical or governmental records.
What is an archivist?
The work of archivists is vital for preserving history. Whether it’s records of someone’s family lineage, marriage records for a city or parish, or rare first edition documents of literary greats, their work ensures that we don’t forget our past, so that it can continue to inform our future.
Much of your training as an archivist happens on the job.
There are a variety of places you could work as an archivist. You could be part of a large city library or university, a public archive housing domestic documents like marriage and birth records, or a museum. Much of the work of an archivist involves keeping good records or where data is held, physically preserving documents, and making physical documents digital for public access. You may support researchers or members of the public in accessing records, too.
The duties you take on as an archivist usually depends on what type of documents you’re responsible for, and who is likely to access them. There are some common responsibilities you’re likely to encounter across the profession, though:
- Preserving and restoring old and valuable documents.
- Keeping detailed records of the documents your archive holds, cataloguing incoming documents and sorting them.
- Deciding how best to organise collections.
- Promoting the archive you work in, for example arranging displays or liaising with local museums to promote new collections.
- Supporting members of the public and professionals in their search for particular documents and archivist matches.
- Providing academic liaison for local universities, such as supporting history departments or academic libraries in their research efforts.
- Preparing documents for digitisation, such as scribing, checking against computer-generated text and adding searchable features.
- Organise the arrival of new documents and prepare any restoration items required.
An archivist salary depends on your level of seniority, as well as your location and the type of archive work. The UK and Ireland’s Archives and Research Association (ARA) suggests that an entry-level salary for archives assistant jobs should be around £20,931. As you progress through the profession, you will earn more - middle managers should expect anywhere from £28,000 to £40,000 with senior managers earning up to £57,000.
A degree isn’t necessary to begin your career in archivist jobs, but it’s usually required to progress. While you don’t necessarily need a degree to begin in the profession at the paraprofessional level, you’ll usually be expected to have begun or finished study to go further in your role.
Undergraduate degrees that set you in good stead for a career in archive work include:
Some individuals take on additional study specific to archive or librarian work. This can be particularly helpful when applying for competitive positions.
- Archives and Records Management degrees
- Archival Studies degrees
- Records Management and Digital Preservation degrees
Training and development
Much of your training as an archivist happens on the job. You’ll be expected to have an understanding of the importance of historical documents and their organisation from your degree or apprenticeship studies, but the technical side of your role will be taught as you go along.
Once you are in your role, you can take on further training and development to advance your knowledge further. The ARA offers a variety of training courses, as well as a competency framework to help you decide where your skills and knowledge could do with development.
With time and experience you could decide to aim for formal registration with the ARA. This involves self-assessment, mentoring, and an examination process. This can be at three different levels: foundation, registered and fellow. Having formal registration will help you advance in your career and solidify your reputation as a competent archivist. To retain your status, you’ll need to complete regular continuing professional development (CPD) such as conference attendance and research, and submit evidence of this to the ARA.
It’s a good idea to try and access some work experience in an archive or library before applying for an archivist position.
Alternative methods of registration include becoming accredited with the Information and Records Management Society (IRMS). You’ll need 5 years of professional experience, a formal qualification such as a degree or master's degree, and to be able to demonstrate your professional ability in a written statement.
Skills of an archivist combine professional knowledge with a commitment to preserving key historical documents. These include:
- A robust knowledge of the sphere your archivist work is in, such as the community you are in and the historical period your documents are from.
- An awareness of key preservation methods.
- An ability to work independently.
- An ability to work well within an interdisciplinary team, such as alongside academics and members of the public on larger projects.
- Organisation skills - it’s vital that you can catalogue and maintain large amounts of information.
- Competency with IT - you may be digitising documents so you’ll need to be confident with using computers and quick to pick up new software.
- Excellent written and verbal communication skills - you’ll need to explain key archival information to various audiences from members of the public to journalists and researchers.
- A good eye for reading handwritten documents, especially when transcribing details or helping archive users find key information.
- A good understanding of general data protection regulations (GDPR), especially when working with data under 100 years old to fulfil the 100 year rule.
It’s a good idea to try and access some work experience in an archive or library before applying for an archivist position. Archivist roles are usually very competitive, so experience shadowing a qualified archivist can be really beneficial. It’s worth contacting local archives to see if they would accept shadowing. These could be public archives, holding domestic information like censuses and birth records, academic archives attached to universities, or even national archives, if there is one near you.
Some large and established archives have dedicated work experience programs. The ARA has a record of institutions that have previously offered placements. The National Archives for the UK, for example, offer placements in their Document Services Department with separate schemes for university students and younger students aged 14-18. You could also apply for an archivist internship to get started in the profession.
The duties you take on as an archivist usually depend on what type of documents you’re responsible for, and who is likely to access them.
Alternatively you could begin your career with an apprenticeship and work your way up. Examples include a library, information services and archive assistant level 3 apprenticeship. You may find that in order to access higher salaries or positions of authority, degree study is needed at a later date.
Your career prospects are interesting and varied as an archivist. If you begin at the assistant level, you can work your way through lower, middle and senior management, eventually becoming a registered archivist with the ARA. You could pursue work for prestigious archives or libraries, such as British Library jobs or National Archive jobs, or specialise in particular areas such as working in film archive jobs, being a museum archivist or a specialist digital archivist.
You could take on further academic study if you particularly enjoy the research side of your work. This could include masters level study, or PhD study specialising in a particular area of documentation. If you pursue a PhD, you’ll eventually be eligible to teach at university level and work towards principal lecturing positions.
You might step sideways in your archivist career and pursue librarianship. Your skills would set you in good stead for positions like this.