How to become an archivist

 4 January 2012

The world of archives has shaken off its image of dusty old manuscripts and embraced digital technology for the ancient practice of record preservation. As an archivist you could well find yourself at the cutting edge of new developments.

Louise King is an archivist at The Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Louise King is an archivist at The Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Michelle Alexander, Postgraduate Support Officer at University of Liverpool Centre for Archive Studies, gives advice on pursuing a career in archives.

Getting into archive work

The jod of an archivist entails caring for, and making accessible, records that have been selected for permanent preservation.

Archives aren't the sole preserve of old museums and universities. As an archivist, you could work for almost any organisation including central and local government record offices, businesses, charities and religious bodies.

The records you will deal with could be in almost any format besides traditional paper: CDs, emails, microfilm and photographs to name just a few.

The tasks you will carry out include appraising, sorting and cataloguing records, liaising with donors and advising users. Depending on the organisation you end up working for, you may also be involved with exhibitions and talks about the collections as well as more general issues such as budgets and funding applications.

Qualities to become an archivist

To become an archivist you should be primarily interested in making information available to people. After all, there is no point meticulously preserving records only for them never to be looked at again!

As an archivist you should be primarily interested in making information available to people.

You also need to be aware of confidentiality and data protection issues and be accurate and detailed in your work.

An interest in heritage is good but it is no longer necessary to have a degree in History or knowledge of Latin. The world of archives has moved on and it is very important to be comfortable with new technology as the archives of the future will be mainly digital. Computer programmes are often used for cataloguing and, as mentioned above, records are increasingly being created in new formats.

You will also need to be fairly fit, as the work can involve some lifting and carrying.

Skills and training to be an archivist

To become a professionally-qualified archivist you need to take a postgraduate qualification that is accredited by the Society of Archivists.

You will need to demonstrate clearly that you have the academic ability to cope with a rigorous and demanding postgraduate course.

However, as getting on one of these courses requires appropriate experience in the field – either paid or voluntary – you need to get suitable work experience listed on your CV before you can apply for a course.

Getting work experience in archives

Getting on a postgraduate course requires appropriate experience in the field – either paid or voluntary.

Keep an eye on your local newspaper as archive assistant/temporary posts are often advertised there. Other useful sources to look at are the National Archives, and the Information and Records Management Society.

Once you've identified which are the best opportunities for you, read the descriptions of opportunities on offer carefully. If you're seen a wonderful job opportunity, but it's based in Glasgow and you live in Bath, consider whether you really would be willing to move.

Although it may be tempting to adopt a scatter-gun tactic to maximise your chances of getting a placement, if you do send your CV to every one on the list, you may be viewed less favourably by prospective employers who would rather see a more focused approach.

Be aware that this is especially true of providers of paid work experience placements who will often not accept speculative CVs outside of the time period allotted for recruitment to the post they are looking to fill.

Competition for these paid work experience placements can be incredibly strong. Any previous and relevant voluntary experience can make a big difference in an application for such employment.

Another important point to bear in mind when seeking your work experience is that quality is often more important than quantity. Two months in a challenging volunteer role where you experience a wide range of tasks would serve as far better preparation for your post-graduate course than a whole year in an unstimulating, rather routine role.

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