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So You Want to Be an Archivist: An Overview of the Archives Profession

Archives are the non-current records of individuals, groups, institutions, and governments that contain information of enduring value. Formats represented in the modern archival repository include photographs, films, video and sound recordings, computer tapes, and video and optical disks, as well as the more traditional unpublished letters, diaries, and other manuscripts. Archival records are the products of everyday activity. Researchers use them both for their administrative value and for purposes other than those for which they were created. For example, Native Americans may use archival records to establish legal claims to land and privileges guaranteed by federal and state governments; medical researchers utilize records to study patterns of diseases; authors use archives to acquire a feel for the people and times about which they are writing; historians and genealogists rely on archival sources to analyze past events to reconstruct family histories; and businesses use the records to improve their public relations and to promote new products. In short, archives benefit nearly everyone, even those who have never directly used them.

The Work of Archivists

The primary task of the archivist is to establish and maintain control, both physical and intellectual, over records of enduring value. Archivists select records, a process that requires an understanding of the historical context in which the records were created, the uses for which they were intended, and their relationships to other sources. The archivist then arranges and describes the records, in accordance with accepted standards and practices; ensures the long-term preservation of collections; assists researchers; and plans and directs exhibitions, publications, and other outreach programs to broaden the use of collections and to enlist support for archival programs. All archivists, especially those with administrative responsibilities, need to understand and apply the principles of sound management to their work.

The work of the archivist is related to, but distinct from, that of certain other professionals. The librarian and the archivist, for example, both collect, preserve, and make accessible materials for research; but significant differences exist in the way these materials are arranged, described, and used. The records manager and the archivist are also closely allied; however, the records manager controls vast quantities of institutional records, most of which will eventually be destroyed, while the archivist is concerned with relatively small quantities of records deemed important enough to be retained for an extended period. The museum curator and the archivist are associated; however, the museum curator collects, studies, and interprets mostly three-dimensional objects, while the archivist works with paper, film, and electronic records. Finally, the archivist and the historian have had a longstanding relationship; the archivist identifies, preserves, and makes the records accessible for use, while the historian uses archival records for research.

Archival Repositories

Archival repositories are as diverse as the institutions and people they serve. They range from large, well-funded operations providing a variety of archival services to limited activities dependent upon a part-time volunteer staff. There is also substantial variation in the nature and scope of repositories and in their structure and organizational placement within the parent institution. Archives are located in federal, state, and local governments; schools, colleges, and universities; religious institutions; businesses; hospitals; museums; labor unions; and historical societies -- wherever it is important to retain the records of people or organizations.

Qualifications for Employment

Individuals can prepare for a career in archives through a variety of educational programs. Most entry-level positions require an undergraduate and a graduate degree, together with archival coursework and a practicum. Although archivists have a variety of undergraduate majors, most receive graduate degrees in history or library science. Some have degrees in both fields. Other useful specializations include public administration and political science. A Ph.D. is often preferred for higher ranking positions in academic institutions. Particular knowledge of certain subjects may be important for work in archives that have specialized topical emphases. Training and experience in conducting research in primary and secondary sources are also helpful.

The number and content of archival education offerings, especially multi-course programs, has continued to expand in recent years, and a few institutions now offer master's degrees in archival studies. Graduate archival programs may offer a variety of courses that include basic archival theory, methods, and/or practice of appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation, reference services, outreach, legal concerns, and ethics. In addition, programs may offer courses that include records management, aspects of library and information science, management, and historical and research methods.

Salaries and Benefits

Salaries, benefits, and working conditions vary greatly, depending on the size and nature of the employing institution. Most government archivists have civil service status, and archivists in academic institutions often have faculty status. Archivists sometimes begin their careers on grant-funded projects; however, many eventually achieve long-term job stability. Almost universally, archivists express a high degree of professional and personal satisfaction with their work.

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