The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives receives dozens of inquiries each year from students and recent graduates about the archival profession and how to become an archivist. Since this is such a popular topic, we have decided to make our answers to the most common questions accessible to a wider audience. While the answers below are intended to address the archival profession in general, they ultimately reflect my own experiences and those of my immediate colleagues.
What does an archivist do?
Archivists perform a wide variety of tasks. In smaller archives a few people can do it all, while in larger archives archivists may specialize in specific aspects of the job. Traditionally, an archivist has worked with donors or the staff of his parent institution to acquire new collections; organize and relocate collections (also called processing); describes collections and writes finding aids; and assists researchers in the use of the collections. Some archivists specialize in the acquisition, management, description and preservation of digital born files, web content, photographic material or audiovisual recordings. Other aspects of the job may include records management, digitization, metadata creation, public awareness, research, writing or teaching.
What do you like the most about your job?
I enjoy learning about a wide variety of subjects within the collections I deal with. I also enjoy going behind the scenes and exploring our museums and research centers from the inside.
What qualities do employers look for in an archivist?
Many employers will be looking for candidates who can work both independently and as part of a team; demonstrate strong research and writing skills; pay attention to detail; are creative problem solvers; and show a natural curiosity. Many positions will require data management, digitization and digital preservation in addition to working with digital files for evaluation and reference purposes. A solid background in basic technical skills will be essential. Some employers may also seek knowledge on a particular subject related to their collection, such as local history or aviation. An intern, volunteer or other practical experience will often be a critical factor in deciding which candidate to hire. The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives offer several internship programs each year, as do other repositories around the institution.
What degree does it take to be an archivist?
Many employers, but not all, will require a master’s degree in library science, a master’s degree in library and information science “or the equivalent”. A master’s degree in library science was once 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 diploma for Archives, Records and Information Management (sometimes referred to as a Masters of Information Science). 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 choosing a graduate school, consider the courses included in the program, not just the title 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”.
What other topics are useful in your work?
Research and writing skills learned through history, English, and other liberal arts classes are helpful. A second language may also be useful in a context where non-English documents are found in collections. Archival collections can deal with any subject, however, so there is no way to tell which subjects may be useful later. Some employers may require archivists to have training in a specific area, while others will look at job skills first and assume the subject will be learned on the job. In addition, workshops or introductory courses in information technology skills, such as database design, programming or data analysis, could be an asset in many different contexts.
What recommendations do you have for a future archivist?
Whether you are just starting your archival training or are looking for a job soon, check out job openings regularly. Take note of the preferred requirements and qualifications for the positions that interest you. More than any advice, these lists will give you a good idea of the skills and knowledge you need to acquire to achieve your ultimate goals. Also, don’t limit yourself to one specialty. Taking specialized courses will make you competitive for certain types of jobs, but be sure to take fundamental courses in all aspects of archival work in order to meet the minimum requirements for the most number of jobs. In addition, if possible, take courses from adjunct professors who also work in an archive service. Through these teachers, you will often learn to make decisions about priorities in contexts where budget and staff are limited.
Be sure to take advantage of the many online resources available to new and future archivists, many of which are free to access. Professional organizations such as the Society of American Archivists, ARMA International (for records management, information management and information governance), the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA), the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) and Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) are all great places to start.