so, what exactly does an archivist do?

27 Sep

This post is inspired by how many library school students and librarians have no real idea of what archivists do and why — a description of archives doesn’t seem to make it to any intro classes. Below is a brief overview.

What are archival records?

A record is information that has been stored in a fixed form, which includes paper, photographs, film and sound recordings, and electronic files. Important to a record is its content, structure, and context. Content is all the information that is contained in the record. The content of a record is fixed, so that it can be reviewed again – its stability is what makes a record significant to memory. A record’s structure is the physical form it is contained in and the organization of its content. Context is all the conditions that surround a record’s creation, storage, or use – and context is very important to archivists.

We create and use countless records in our everyday life, but not every record is considered archival. Archives simply cannot keep all records ever created, so one of the main responsibilities of an archivist is to determine if a record should be preserved because it has enduring value.

Archival records document the activities of its creator – whether that’s an individual, group, or organization – and these records serve as direct evidence of the creator’s activities. Because the content of the records serve as evidence of these activities, they have enduring value. Archival records serve a purpose other than the one they were originally created for.

What exactly is an archives?

The term “archives” can refer to the archival materials themselves, organizations that collect archival materials, the archival profession, and a building that houses archival materials. The word “archives” is and can be used interchangeably in reference to any of those definitions.

What are the main responsibilities of an archivist?

An archivist’s work involves many different parts of managing an archival collection. Some archivists perform all of the responsibilities described below, but archivists in larger institutions may focus on just a few of these.

Appraisal and Acquisition
I mentioned appraisal earlier – archivists appraise records to determine if they have enduring value and should be preserved in the long-term. While archival records may be worth money, archival appraisal is not concerned with monetary value but the value of the record’s content. Appraisal is subjective because part of the selection process looks to see if records fit within the archives’ mission and purpose. If an archivist decides that a collection should be part of the archival institution, the materials are acquired and transferred through a process called accessioning.

Archivists arrange the archival materials in order to provide access to researchers. In arrangement, archivists intellectually organize the records and make sure the physical organization reflects that intellectual arrangement. Especially important to archivists during this process are the concepts of provenance and original order. Provenance is the relationship between a record and the individuals or organizations who created, maintained, or used it. To maintain provenance, archivists try to ensure that records are kept according to their origin and not mixed in with other collections. Original order is keeping records in the same order in which the creator arranged them. Maintaining both provenance and original order is necessary to preserve the records’ context. This context can be crucial to a researcher, which is why archivists try so hard to maintain it.

In the description process, archivists try to create an accurate representation of an archival collection’s content and how it is arranged physically. In addition, archivists provide information about the creator and the context of the records’ creation. This description information is generally brought together in a finding aid, which serves as a researcher’s guide to the collection.  In most archival collections, materials are not described at the item level.

Archivists also facilitate the physical preservation of archival records. This often happens during the arrangement process. For example, to ensure paper records don’t deteriorate, they are stored in acid-free folders and placed in acid-free boxes. Metal items such as paper clips and staples may be removed because they will rust, damaging the paper. The facility where archival records are stored usually have temperature and humidity controls.

Reference and Outreach
All the steps described before this – appraisal, acquisition, arrangement, description, and preservation – are all for the purpose of archives being used in the present and future. In order for researchers to use archives to their fullest potential, they often need reference assistance from archivists. Reference assistance can include how to interpret finding aids, how to properly handle archival material, and if there are archival collections other than the one the researcher is reviewing that would be relevant or helpful.

Why do archivists do all this tedious work?

One main, historical reason for archival work is to enable public accountability of government activities. To ensure an open democracy and government, citizens must have access to the records created by the government. As evidence of government activity, these records have a very specific enduring value and must be preserved. This archival purpose dates back to the French Revolution, which serves as a key event in the history of archives.

Another reason for archival work is a commitment to preserving different aspects of history. Institutional archives collect records that document the activities of their parent organization, such as businesses and universities. These records have enduring value because they provide necessary institutional history for the organization itself. Other archives collect records based on specific themes or academic disciplines, such as anthropology, African American history, or Asian art.

To sum up what an archivist does and why

Basically, an archivist ensures physical and intellectual control of records that have enduring value. Archivists do this for many reasons – such as to facilitate public accountability of government, to ensure the history of cultural heritage is not forgotten, or to maintain institutional history. Archives do not simply store records — archives are meant to be used! Archivists perform all those responsibilities in order for people to access and use records.


Posted by on September 27, 2011 in archives, library school


5 responses to “so, what exactly does an archivist do?

  1. JNechiporenko

    August 19, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Thank you SO much for this information. I’m a library student and have been rather baffled as to what archivists do.

  2. Anne Strong

    May 31, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Here’s an interview that provides some insight into a day in the life of an archivist. The archivist profiled in the interview was working on processing the papers of Dr. Hector P. Garcia, champion of civil rights for Mexican-Americans and veterans in the mid to late 20th century.


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