Working as an Archivist: Job Description, Duties and Skills

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What Does an Archivist Do?

Archivist job description

An archivist is a person whose job is to create, organize and maintain an archive, i.e. a coherent collection of documents. The documents contained in an archive may include text, drawings, photographs, and audio and video recordings of cultural, historical, artistic or administrative value or interest.

Archivists: what do they do?

Archivists may work for public or private organizations, including private businesses, foundations and religious or military institutions. They are responsible for the conservation of historical (or inactive) records as well as the management and systematic maintenance of current (or active) records.

Current records are documents produced during the normal day-to-day activities of the archive creator (the organization the archive belongs to, which may be a business, an institution or even a self-employed professional), which have a practical, administrative, accounting or legal value or function. For current records, an archivist’s tasks include establishing the storage architecture (for example, using chronological or alphabetical order or based on the support type, e.g. paper, optical or digital), carrying out the activities required to maintain that structure, i.e. cataloguing and indexing, and deciding what material to keep and what to discard.

Archivist skills and competencies

Historical archives are archives that no longer have any practical use, but which continue to be of historical and cultural value. Historical archives are inactive, meaning that new records are no longer being created. Instead, the archive numbering is frozen and all of its contents are conserved. The conservation of archive contents may require special care and attention, especially where documents are old, fragile or subject to deterioration.

The conservation of an archive by an archivist is not an end in itself. Archivists are in fact also responsible for ensuring that the information contained in an archive can be consulted and retrieved by internal and external users. Every archive has its own specific procedures for user access to documentation, whose objectives will include preserving the integrity of the archive materials (especially for historical archives) and ensuring data confidentiality (particularly for current records). The user base of an archive may vary widely, depending on the type of material contained and may include administrative or legal personnel, historians, academics, students and researchers, as well as general interest users and enthusiasts.

The profession of archivist and the duties it entails are currently undergoing a transformation, as digital innovations continue to be introduced. Increasingly, archives contain not only physical records, but also digital and electronic documents, while archivists may also be employed as digital conservation specialists. Digital archivists are increasingly in demand in companies planning to transition their administrative records and processes from paper to digital. To optimize this change, companies require experts capable of coordinating the process and advising their personnel on proper archiving practices and use of electronic tools and management applications.

Archivists usually work full time with normal office hours.

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Archivist: Duties, Responsibilities and Tasks

Archivist tasks and responsibilities

An archivist’s duties include:

  • Document conservation
  • Indexing, cataloguing and ordering archive materials
  • Scanning paper documentation and electronic archiving
  • Managing document accessibility
  • Designing archive architecture
  • Ensuring proper document conservation
  • Maximizing the value of an archive and its contents

How to Become an Archivist - Education and Training

How to become Archivist - Training

The type of training needed by an archivist depends on the sort of documentation they are required to work with. Historical archives require archivists with formal academic training in history, the arts and/or cultural heritage management and conservation, while archivists working on current records should possess the administrative skills required for the management, cataloguing and classification of documentation.

A knowledge of digitization, conservation and document access processes is also important, as is a knowledge of the legislation applicable to archive materials, which can vary according to archive contents. For example, legal documentation has different archiving procedures and time frames to administrative and medical documentation.

Depending on the sector in which they intend to work (i.e. historical archives, corporate archives, digital archives) archivists may be required to attend special training courses or have a knowledge of specific (ancient or modern) languages.

Archivist Skills and Requirements

The most common skills requirements in job advertisements for archivists include:

  • Knowledge of archiving principles (including digital)
  • Knowledge of archive-related legislation
  • Description and ordering techniques
  • Digital management techniques
  • Record conservation skills
  • Maximum precision and attention to detail

What's the Career Path of an Archivist?

Archivist career path

As an archivist’s career advances, their responsibilities will gradually increase. For example, they may be assigned responsibility for a section of an archive or a specific processing phase or phases, then subsequently progress to a coordination or management position and eventually become archive director.

Another possible career path is within the administrative department of a company, where an archivist may combine archive maintenance duties with data entry tasks.

An archivist may also choose to specialize in a specific type of documentation (such as digital documentation), a particular historical period (the skills required to manage an archive of medieval documents are different to those needed for contemporary documents) or even specific types of institutions (e.g. religious, military, or industrial).

Top Reasons to Work as an Archivist

So, why should you consider working as an Archivist?

People choosing to embark upon a career as an archivist often do so because of the cultural opportunities it offers. The chance to do a job that involves studying and conserving material from the remote or recent past and preserving it for posterity is often in fact a major factor of attraction.

In addition, modern technology is currently revolutionizing the field of archiving and creating a host of interesting employment opportunities, including in relation to the current archives of businesses and organizations.

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