So You Want to Be an Archivist

People come to the archival profession for many reasons—to tell the story of a community, preserve a piece of history, hold people and institutions accountable, improve access through technology, connect researchers with the documents they need, and more. Archivists work wherever it is important to retain the records of people or organizations, including universities, large corporations, libraries and museums, government institutions, hospitals, historical societies, and religious communities. They work with digital documents, rare manuscripts, analog film, letters, postcards, diaries, photographs, organizational records—and that’s just the start of it.

Educational Requirements

The educational path to a career in archives is equally varied. 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. Public administration and political science are also useful specializations. A PhD 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. Experience in conducting research in primary and secondary sources is 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, and historical and research methods. Browse SAA’s Directory of Archival Education to find a program that’s right for you.

Professional Development

SAA provides continuing education and professional development opportunities our education program, the Annual Meeting, publications, and other resources. The education program offers refresher and introductory courses on archival practices as well as two certificate programs: the Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) Certificate and the Arrangement and Description (A&D) Certificate. The Annual Meeting gathers archivists from around the country to network, discuss current trends, attend informative education sessions, and find new archival resources that archivists can use within their repositories. Stay up-to-date on best practices by reading SAA books, The American Archivist, and Archival Outlook, or join the SAA mentoring program to mentor or be mentored.

Work Environment and Benefits

Salaries, benefits, and working conditions for archivists vary greatly, depending on the size and nature of the employing institution. Archival repositories range from large, well-funded operations providing a variety of archival services to limited activities dependent upon a part-time staff. There is also substantial variation in the nature and scope of repositories and in their structure and organizational placement within the parent institution. Most government archivists have civil service status, and archivists in academic institutions often have faculty status.

The work of archivists serves to strengthen collective memory; protect the rights, property, and identity of citizens; and provide transparency and accountability to public and private institutions. As a result, archivists, almost universally, express a high degree of professional and personal satisfaction within their career.