Want to Become an Archivist? Here’s How

archivist reaching for file in archives

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Do you have a passion for history and a desire to educate and share knowledge with others? Are you a meticulous, organized person with strong attention to detail? Then archival studies could be the perfect career for you. 

Archivists are preservers of history and storytellers. They are responsible for keeping the memory of society and sharing records of the larger community. A wide variety of institutions employ archivists, from art and history museums to government agencies such as the FBI, and the work can be very different depending on the setting and precise responsibilities. 

What exactly does the job entail, what does it take to become an archivist and what can you expect from a job in the field? Here’s everything you should know about this exciting world.

What is an archivist?

An archivist preserves materials such as books, photographs, maps, letters, films, diaries, digital and physical records, and more. Archivists have extensive education related to and training on collecting, managing, ensuring the longevity of and storing these materials and are tasked with making them accessible to the public and providing accurate contextual and background information on them to the larger community. 

They often work with professionals in related fields, such as museum curators, librarians, educators and information technologists to help serve their communities. For example, an archivist working at a college might work with a history instructor to show their collection to students and connect the materials to their coursework or explain how they can use them in research.

How do you become an archivist?

What qualifications do you need to be an archivist? The requirements vary depending on the specific role, but for the most part, archivists must undergo extensive training and earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Generally, the path is as follows:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree.

Your degree doesn’t need to be in archival science in order to ultimately becoming an archivist, although it will help you gain a foundation in and learn about the basics of the field. Many humanities and social science majors, such as history, art history, English, library science and others will also prepare you for a master’s program. 

2. Earn a master’s degree. 

You may be able to land an entry-level job without a graduate degree, but earning a master’s in archival studies or library science is often a prerequisite. Many programs give you the opportunity to further specialize in specific materials or types of archival studies. Typical coursework topics include:

• archival theory and methods

• preservation

• research

• records management

• description

• appraisal

• and others

Some archivists participate in PhD programs, especially those working in academic settings. 

3. Intern and gain and experience. 

An archival internship will help you gain the skills you need to be successful in the field. You should also gain extensive research experience since this will be a large part of your work. Even volunteering at museums, libraries, community centers and related organizations — focusing on collecting and preserving materials — can help you develop important skills and familiarize yourself with these types of settings. 

After completing an internship and/or gaining the necessary skills, you’ll look for job opportunities. See below for the types of institutions that employ archivists.

4. Pursue professional development opportunities.

After gaining experience in the field, some archivists choose to pursue professional development opportunities through the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and other organizations. If you join the SAA, you will have access to certificate programs, mentorship opportunities, conferences, publications and other resources.

Some archivists also elect to earn certifications. For example, you may become a Certified Archivist through the Academy of Certified Archivists, which requires a master’s degree in archival studies and a year of work experience. You must also pass an exam and become recertified every five years. 

Where can an archivist work?

Archivists work in many different and varied settings. Essentially, any place that has records and requires the preservation of materials can use the assistance of an archivist. Some of these settings include:

• Museums

• Libraries

• Historical societies and sites

• Colleges and universities

• Religious organizations and communities

• Government agencies (such as the Army and the FBI)

• Hospitals and medical associations

• Corporations

• Art galleries and auction houses

• Information centers

• Cultural centers and landmarks

• Zoos

• Aquariums

The positions and duties of archivists vary greatly according to the settings in which they are employed. Positions can be full-time or part-time at large or small institutions. 

The titles and statuses of archivists can be different as well. An archivist who works for a college or university, for example, may be considered a faculty member.

How much does an archivist make?

There is a wide range of salaries for archivists depending on where they work, their educational background and their experience level. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for archivists in the United States was $52,240 as of May 2018.

PayScale reports that entry-level archivists with less than one year of experience earn an average salary of $39,381, while late-career archivists with 20 years or more of experience earn an average salary of $57,555.

Should you pursue a career as an archivist?

Successful archivists pursue the profession for a variety of reasons, such as a passion for history and cultures, a desire to make information more accessible, a wish to educate the public, a need to make institutions more transparent and protect the public and others — but ultimately, they share the common goal of bridging the past to the present and future.

The field of archival studies is not an especially lucrative one, and landing a job requires time, education and hard work. That means that those who will thrive in it truly love the work they do — and to make it a successful and satisfactory career, you must share that same drive and passion.

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