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Introduction to Archival Research: Who and What is an Archivist?

An archivist is . . .

n. ~ 1. An individual responsible for appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value, according to the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control to protect the materials' authenticity and context. - 2. An individual with responsibility for management and oversight of an archival repository or of records of enduring value.

Archival Career Advice

What do archivists do?

Archivists perform a wide variety of tasks. In a smaller archives, a few individuals may do everything while, in a larger archives, archivists may specialize in specific aspects of the work. Traditionally, an archivist works with donors or the staff of its parent institution to acquire new collections; organizes and rehouses collections (also known as processing); describes collections and writes finding aids; and assists researchers in using the collections. Some archivists specialize in the acquisition, management, description, and preservation of photographic or audiovisual materials or electronic records. Other aspects of the job may include records management, digitization, public outreach, writing, and teaching.

What qualities are employers looking for in an archivist?

Many employers will be looking for applicants who can work both independently and on a team; demonstrate strong research and writing skills; exhibit attention to detail; are creative problem solvers; and show a natural curiosity. Many positions will require work with databases, digitization, electronic records, websites, or social media so a solid background in basic computer skills will be essential. Some employers may also be looking for knowledge of a particular topic related to their collection, such as local history or aviation. Intern, volunteer, or other hands-on experience will often be a critical factor in deciding which applicant to hire.

What degree do you need to be an archivist?

Many, but not all, employers will require a Master of Library Science "or equivalent."  A Master of Library Science was a common degree for new archivists, but as traditional library school programs have evolved, many universities have renamed the degree (often combining the terms "library" and "information") or have created a separate degree for the archives, records, and information management (often called a Master of Information Studies). A very limited number of universities have even created a degree specifically for archival studies. Employers generally recognize that these degrees tend to be similar. When deciding on a graduate school, look at the types of courses that are included in the curriculum, not just the name of the degree offered. Other common graduate degrees held by archivists include public history and museum studies. Some positions may only require an undergraduate degree, but a graduate degree will likely be "preferred."

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