12 March 2013

Archivists look after historical documents to make sure they are preserved for the future.

Archivists look after the material in an archive to make sure it is preserved for the future.
Archivists look after the material in an archive to make sure it is preserved for the future.

What does an archivist do?

An archive is a collection of original historical records and documents which provides a permanent record of the past. An archive could relate to:

  • a person
  • a place
  • an organisation.

Archive material is not necessarily about famous people. Material from the past can be valuable for what it shows us about how ordinary people lived their daily lives or how businesses or hospitals were run in times gone by.

Material from the past can be valuable for what it shows us about how ordinary people lived their daily lives.

Archive material can include a variety of media:

  • paper-based, including books, plans, maps and files
  • computer records
  • digital or audio recordings
  • photographs and film.


Archivists look after the material in an archive to make sure it is preserved for the future. They make the material available for people to look at and help them use it.

Their duties are likely to involve:

  • selecting which material to either preserve or destroy
  • making sure materials are stored correctly and kept in good condition
  • identifying, dating, cataloguing and indexing archive materials
  • helping people to use the archives
  • making records available to users in formats such as photocopies, microfiche and computer-based tools
  • carrying out research
  • advising on the interpretation of the material
  • giving talks and organising presentations, displays and exhibitions
  • negotiating the buying or donation of archive materials and assessing their importance.

The people who use archives may be students, historians or professional researchers. Members of the public also use archives, often to research their own family history.

Archive assistants

Large archives may have archive assistants. They help the archivist with the day-to-day running of the archive. An archive assistant may:

  • deal with enquiries by phone or email from researchers and members of the public
  • catalogue and index archive items
  • input information onto databases
  • create and maintain digital resources by, for example, scanning, sorting and formatting
  • assist with the care and preservation of archive material in strongrooms
  • help users who visit the archive to use the material
  • have other clerical or administrative work needed to run the archive
  • help with presentations, displays and exhibitions.

Archivists and assistants may be employed by local authorities, national archives and museums, large businesses, universities, religious foundations, charities or private collections. Some are specialists in a particular subject area.

The work is mainly office-based, but archivists may spend time with the archive material which may be stored in dusty, cramped conditions. The records themselves may be heavy and could be mouldy or dirty.

How do I become an archivist?

You need a real interest in the past. You need to be able to communicate this interest to other people, who may not be specialists. Being well-organised, with a logical mind and able to pay attention to detail will also help.

An interest and ability in IT is essential.

Training and qualifications

Fully-qualified archivists have a degree and a postgraduate qualification in archives. The degree can be in any subject. Many archivists study history, law or classics. Others have degrees in relevant subjects, such as information management, or in other science subjects, particularly for specialised scientific archive work.

The postgraduate course must be one recognised by the Archives and Records Association. Courses are either diploma or Masters and can be studied full-time, part-time or by distance learning.

Getting onto the postgraduate courses can be fiercely competitive. You will need to show that you have a real interest in archive work. This could be by paid or voluntary work. Working as an archive assistant can be a way to get experience.

Many archive collections welcome volunteers, particularly those wishing to get into the profession. The National Archives ARCHON directory has a list of collections. The Archives and Records Association website has information on finding a placement, including guidelines for work experience and a list of voluntary and paid placements.

There are no specified qualifications for archives assistants. They need a good standard of literacy and numeracy (and possibly qualifications to support this such as GCSE maths and English).

In practice, many archive assistants may have a degree and may be working towards a career as a fully-qualified archivist.

There are apprenticeships in libraries, archives records and information services at level 2 (intermediate) or level 3 (advanced).

What will I earn?

Archive assistants can earn around £14,000 to £16,000.

The Archives and Records Association recommends a minimum of £22,221 for recently-qualified staff. With experience this can rise to £26,000. A head of archives could earn £60,000.

Also of interest

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