Puneet Varma (Editor)


Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

An archivist (AR-kiv-ist) is an information professional who assesses, collects, organizes, preserves, maintains control over, and provides access to records and archives determined to have long-term value. The records maintained by an archivist can consist of a variety of forms, including letters, diaries, logs, various other writings, official documents, sound and/or picture recordings, etc.



As Richard Pearce-Moses wrote:

"Archivists keep records that have enduring value as reliable memories of the past, and they help people find and understand the information they need in those records."

Determining what records have enduring value can be challenging. Archivists must also select records valuable enough to justify the costs of storage and preservation, plus the labor-intensive expenses of arrangement, description, and reference service. The theory and scholarly work underpinning archives practices is called archival science.

Although both are concerned with managing information, the occupation of archivist is quite distinct from that of librarian. The two occupations have separate courses of training, adhere to separate and distinct principles, and are represented by separate professional organizations. In broad terms, the librarian tends to deal with published media (of which the metadata, such as author, title, and date of publication may be readily apparent and can be presented in standardized form), whereas the archivist deals with unpublished media (which has different challenges such as the metadata not always being immediately apparent, containing complications and variety, and more likely to depend on provenance). In addition, because archival records are frequently unique, some archivists may be as much concerned with the preservation and custody of the information carrier (i.e. the physical document) as with its informational content. In this regard, some would argue the archivist may have more in common with the museum curator than with the librarian. The occupation of archivist is also frequently distinguished from that of records manager, although in this case the distinction is less absolute: the archivist is predominantly concerned with records deemed worthy of permanent preservation, whereas the records manager is more concerned with records of current administrative importance.

Duties and work environment

Archivists' duties include acquiring and appraising new collections, arranging and describing records, providing reference service, and preserving materials. In arranging records, archivists apply two important principles: provenance and original order. Provenance refers to the origin of records, essentially who created them. Many entities create records, including government, businesses, universities, and personal collections of individuals. Original order is applied by keeping records in their order as established and maintained by the creator(s). Both provenance and original order are closely related to the concept of respect des fonds, which states that records from one corporate body should not be mixed with records from another. There are two aspects to arrangement: intellectual and physical. Both aspects follow the principle of original order. Archivists process the records physically by placing them in folders and boxes, usually acid free to ensure their long-term survival. They also process the records intellectually, by determining what the records consist of, how they are organized, and what, if any, finding aids need to be created. Finding aids can be box lists or descriptive inventories, or indexes. If the original arrangement is unclear or even unhelpful in terms of accessing the collection, it is not usually rearranged to something that makes more sense. This is because preserving the original order answers the most questions about the collection. It shows how the creator of the records functioned, why the records were created, and how he went about arranging them. If the archivist rearranged them, the records would lose the ability to answer these questions. It would also lose all significance, as the provenance and authenticity of the records may be lost. However, original order is not always the best way to maintain some collections and archivists must use their own experience and current best practices to determine the correct way to keep collections of mixed media or those lacking a clear original arrangement.

Archivists' work encompasses a range of ethical decisions that may be thought of as falling into three broad and intertwined areas: legal requirements; professional standards; and accountability to society in selecting and preserving documentary materials that serve as a primary source of knowledge, and influence collective memory and identity. In negotiating ethical conflicts that arise in their work, archivists are guided by codes of ethics. The Society of American Archivists first adopted a code of ethics in 1980; the International Council on Archives adopted one in 1996.

Alongside their work behind the scenes arranging and caring for collections, archivists assist users in interpreting collections and answering inquiries. This reference work can be just part of an archivist's job in a smaller organization, or consist of most of their occupation in a larger archive where specific roles (such as processing archivist and reference archivist) may be delineated.

Archivists work for a variety of organizations, including government agencies, local authorities, museums, hospitals, historical societies, businesses, charities, corporations, colleges and universities, and any institution whose records may potentially be valuable to researchers, exhibitors, genealogists, or others. Alternatively, they could also work on the collections of a large family or even of an individual. Applicants for archives jobs usually outnumber positions available.

Archivists are often educators as well; it is not unusual for an archivist employed at a university or college to lecture in a subject related to their collection. Archivists employed at cultural institutions or for local government frequently design educational or outreach programs to further the ability of archive users to understand and access information in their collections. This might include such varied activities as exhibitions, promotional events, or even media coverage.

The advent of Encoded Archival Description, along with increasing demand for materials to be made available online, has required archivists to become more tech-savvy in the past decade. Many archivists are now acquiring basic XML skills in order to make their finding aids available to researchers online.


Because of the varied nature of the job and organisations and work environment, archivists need to have a wide range of skills:

  • Those who work in reference and access-oriented positions need to be good with people, so that they are able to help them with their research.
  • An ability to apply some basic knowledge of conservation is needed to help extend the useful life of cultural artifacts. Many different types of media (such as photographs, acidic papers, and unstable copy processes) can deteriorate if not stored and maintained properly.
  • Although many archival collections consist solely of paper records, increasingly archivists must confront the new challenges posed by the preservation of electronic records, so they need to be forward-looking and technologically proficient.
  • Because of the amount of sorting and listing, they need to be very logical and organised and be able to pay attention to detail.
  • When cataloging records, or when assisting users, archivists need to have some research skills.
  • Archivists are occasionally called upon to comment or provide some context for the records in their collection and so should know as much about their collection as possible.
  • Educational preparation

    The educational preparation for archivists varies from country to country.


    The Australian Society of Archivists is the professional body for archivists, and is responsible for the accreditation of the various University courses. The first University to offer archival training was the University of New South Wales, starting in 1973. The course closed in 1996.

    Courses are now offered at Curtin University in Western Australia, Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, and Monash University in Victoria at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The course at Edith Cowan University is being phased out. Courses are offered in a variety of modes, including online via Open University Australia and through a combination of online and internal units at the various universities.


    In Colombia, the Universidad de La Salle offers the degree of Professional in Information Systems, Library and Archival Sciences. It is a vocational training program, within existing legal standards aimed at providing knowledge, skills and abilities required for the design and management of information systems and documentation of various sorts. Its projection for the future is based on the application of new information technologies and communications for the management of information services economically viable. The program was created in 1971.

    Other institutions that offers a degree in Archival Science are:

  • Universidad del Quindío – Professional degree: Professional in Information and Documentation, Library and Archival Sciences.
  • Universidad de Antioquia, Escuela Interamericana de Bibliotecología – Technological degree: Technologist in Archival Science.
  • Universidad Católica de Manizales – Technological degree: Technologist in Documentation and Archival Science.
  • Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje – SENA – in chain training with the Tecnológico de Antioquia Tecnológico de Antioquia – Technical degree: Professional Technical in Archives, Technological degree: Technologist in Documentation and Archival Science.
  • France

    In France, the oldest Archivist School is the École des chartes, founded in 1821. This prestigious grande école offers a diploma in "Archivist-Paleography" after a three-year curriculum. A part of its alumni pursue to a State archivist career after an 18-month formation at the Institut national du patrimoine. Most positions are reserved for European citizens.

    Some universities offer master's degree in Archival Science: Angers, Caen, Dijon, Lille III, Lyon III, Mulhouse, Versailles Saint-Quentin,

    Republic of Ireland

    In Republic of Ireland, the University College Dublin School of History and Archives offers a Masters of Arts degree in Archives and Records Management, recognised by the Society of Archivists.

    New Zealand

    Victoria University of Wellington is the only tertiary institution in New Zealand provides postgraduate archival courses. Victoria Information Studies qualifications with ARCR endorsement have been recognized by Records and Information Management Professionals Australasia. Open Polytechnic of New Zealand provides undergraduate archival courses.

    United Kingdom

    In the United Kingdom, there are currently five full- or part-time postgraduate courses in archives administration or management which are recognised by the Archives and Records Association (United Kingdom and Ireland). Students are expected to have relevant paid or voluntary work experience before obtaining a place on the UK courses; many undertake a year's traineeship. Also, professional certification (after qualifying) can be pursued via the Registration Scheme offered by the Archives and Records Association.

    United States

    According to the most recent professional census of American Archivists published, most of those in the United States have earned a master's degree. However, the exact type of degree can vary; the most common sorts of advanced degrees held by archivists are in archival science, public history, history, library science, or library and information science. It is also possible for archivists to earn a doctorate in library, or library and information, science. Archivists with a PhD often work as teaching faculty, or deans or directors of archival programs. In 2002, the Society of American Archivists published Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies; it also promotes and disseminates a code of ethics, which has undergone several revisions since it was first adopted in 1980.

    Also in the United States, the Academy of Certified Archivists offers supplemental archival training by means of a certification program. When first established in 1989, some critics of ACA certification objected to its annual membership fees, the theoretical versus practical nature of its tests, and the need for members to re-certify every five years. However, in the decades since, it has been agreed that such requirements are comparable with certification programs in other professions, and that certification strengthens professional standards and individual competencies. While some positions in archives require certification and many employers view certification as preferred, it is not required by all employers in the United States. Approximately 1,100 archivists were certified by ACA, as of 30 June 2011.

    Professional organizations and continuing education

    Many archivists belong to a professional organization, such as the Society of American Archivists, the Association of Canadian Archivists, the Archives and Records Association (UK/Ireland), the Colombian College of Archivists - CCA, and the Australian Society of Archivists, as well as any number of local or regional associations. These organizations often provide ongoing educational opportunities to their members and other interested practitioners. In addition to formal degrees and or apprenticeships, many archivists take part in continuing education opportunities as available through professional associations and library school programs. New discoveries in the fields of media preservation and emerging technologies require continuing education as part of an archivist's job in order to stay current in the profession.

    History of the profession

    In 1898, three Dutch archivists, Samuel Muller, Johan Feith, and Robert Fruin, published the first Western text on archival theory, entitled Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives. Produced for the Dutch Association of Archivists, it set out one hundred rules for archivists to base their work around. Notably, within these rules, the principle of preserving provenance and original order was first argued for as an essential trait of archival arrangement and description.

    The next major text was the Manual of Archive Administration published in 1922 by Hilary Jenkinson, then employed at the British Public Record Office: a revised edition appeared in 1937. In this work, Jenkinson states that archives are evidence and that the moral and physical defence of this evidential value is the central tenet of archival work. He further outlines his ideas of what an archive should be and how it should operate.

    In 1956, T. R. Schellenberg, who is known as the "Father of American Archival Appraisal", published Modern Archives. Schellenberg's work was intended to be an academic textbook defining archival methodology and giving archivists specific technical instruction on workflow and arrangement. Moving away from Jenkinson's organic and passive approach to archival acquisition, where the administrator decided what was kept and what was destroyed, Schellenberg argued for a more active approach by archivists to appraisal. His primary (administrative) and secondary (research) value model for the management and appraisal of records and archives allowed government archivists greater control over the influx of material that they faced after the Second World War. As a result of the widespread adoption of Schellenberg's methods, especially in the United States of America, modern Records Management as a separate but related discipline was born.

    In 1972, Ernst Posner published Archives in the Ancient World. Posner's work emphasized that archives were not new inventions, but had existed in many different societies throughout recorded history.

    In 1975, essays by Margaret Cross Norton were collected under the title of Norton on Archives: The Writings of Margaret Cross Norton on Archival and Records Management. Norton was one of the founders of the Society of American Archivists, and wrote essays based on her decades of experience working in the Illinois State Archives.

    Archives 2.0

    Archivists, like librarians, are taking advantage of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, as well as open access and open source philosophies.


    Archivist Wikipedia

    Similar Topics