If you enjoy solving puzzles and have an interest in preserving history for future generations, then a career as an archivist may be for you
Archivists acquire, manage and maintain documents and other materials that have historical importance for individuals, organisations and nations. A large part of your work is related to making information accessible to users, increasingly in digital format.
Archives may include books, papers, maps, plans, photographs, prints, films and computer-generated records. Users include researchers, academics, other professional staff and the general public.
As an archivist, you'll need to:
- evaluate records for preservation and retention - some may be fragile and need careful handling, repair or conservation;
- arrange the acquisition and retrieval of records;
- catalogue collections and manage information and records;
- liaise with donors and depositors of archives;
- respond to enquiries from members of the public and other users;
- advise users on how best to access, use and interpret archives;
- prepare record-keeping systems and procedures for archival research and for the retention or destruction of records;
- maintain user-friendly, computer-aided search systems;
- promote your work through exhibitions, presentations, talks and visits;
- organise training sessions on archival procedures;
- identify ways of protecting and preserving collections;
- advise on the ongoing organisation and storage of material in order to encourage organisations to plan for the future.
At a more senior level, you'll be expected to:
- bid for funds and manage budgets;
- manage and supervise staff;
- take responsibility for overall strategy.
- The Archives and Records Association (ARA) recommends that the minimum starting salary for recently qualified archivists, archive conservators and records managers is £22,443.
- With experience, you can expect to earn in the region of £25,000 to £38,000.
- Salaries at senior level can rise to around £55,000.
Local authority and Civil Service grades are frequently tied to scales. Business repositories, central government and universities may offer higher salaries.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Archives offering a public service may require shift work or flexible working, especially in local government archives, where record offices often share opening hours with local libraries.
Career breaks, part-time and flexible working is possible within the Civil Service, local government and public sector organisations.
What to expect
- Some record offices are comfortable and modern with good facilities, but in others you may have to share office space in less comfortable conditions.
- Some tasks are physically demanding and you may have to work in cramped and dirty conditions, particularly when rescuing records from basements or disused buildings.
- You are likely to spend a large proportion of your time working at a computer.
- Jobs are spread out in small numbers throughout the UK and Ireland. Many posts are available on temporary or fixed-term contracts, so be prepared to be flexible. With experience, there may be opportunities for self-employment and contract work, especially in the religious, charities and business sectors and with private individuals and trusts.
- There may be opportunities for international travel or secondments and posts abroad.
To become an archivist, you'll need a first degree followed by a postgraduate qualification accredited by the ARA. Although the subject of your first degree doesn't generally matter, many archivists have degrees in history, law, classics and English. In specialist scientific archives services, a degree in a science subject may be useful.
Entry onto a postgraduate course is competitive and you normally need a good honours degree and previous work experience. Courses lead to a nine-month Postgraduate Diploma, the minimum requirement for employment as a professional archivist, or a full one-year Masters degree on completion of a dissertation. Most courses are combined archives and records management programmes. Part-time and distance learning options are available at some institutions. For a full list of accredited courses, visit the ARA website.
You can apply for a position at assistant (paraprofessional) level without a postgraduate qualification. Posts are available in most archive services and it may be possible to complete further study in-service or after a period of employment.
Student membership of ARA is useful and benefits include access to vacancies, discounts on training, networking opportunities and access to the ARC Magazine.
You'll need to have:
- a genuine interest in history and in preserving records for posterity;
- good communication skills to relate to, and encourage, a range of users;
- a logical approach to the work of identification and classification;
- an understanding of research skills in order to help users access materials;
- the ability to skim and understand an extensive and varied range of material;
- attention to detail and accuracy;
- the ability to anticipate and respond to changing needs and digital media;
- a commitment to the profession and to professional development;
- the ability to work independently and as part of a team;
- good IT skills and an interest in applying digital technology to archival practice;
- competence in administrative procedures and project management skills.
Knowledge of the data protection and freedom of information legislation may also be useful.
Competition for places on one of the postgraduate training courses is fierce and you'll need to have good quality voluntary or paid work experience to be successful. This experience should be in an archives environment, not a library.
Approach local archives for voluntary opportunities and search ARA Placement Opportunities for a list of organisations offering placements. The largest archives services are likely to be in local government and universities. Make contacts wherever you can.
Assistant archivist positions are advertised in the local and national press and also on the Archives-NRA List. For contact details of local archive and records management services, see The National Archives.
Many archivists are employed by local government. Opportunities are also available with:
- The National Archives and The National Archives of Scotland;
- The British Library and the national libraries of Scotland and Wales;
- the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI);
- cultural institutions such as museums and art galleries;
- large charities;
- central government;
- public bodies, such as the NHS;
- religious foundations;
- media organisations;
- specialist repositories within the private sector in large corporations, businesses and industrial organisations;
- private institutions, families and individuals.
Competition for jobs is strong and many archivists move from one sector to another and work for a range of employers during their career. Although currently very few archivists are self-employed, opportunities in this area are increasing.
Look for job vacancies at:
- ARC Recruitment – the Archives and Records Association's recruitment bulletin.
- Archives-NRA List
- Leicester University School of Museum Studies Jobs Desk - for archive opportunities in museums and galleries.
Recruitment agencies rarely advertise vacancies.
Once qualified, you're encouraged to continue your professional development, to develop your skills, build up your professional knowledge and establish a network of contacts.
Until the end of 2017 you can take the Archives and Records Association Registration Scheme and work towards achieving registered status. Supported by a mentor throughout, you need to submit a portfolio and other evidence of your competence. The scheme takes a minimum of three years to complete and on successful completion allows you to add the letters RMARA after your name.
From 2018 the ARA will offer members the opportunity to participate in a career-long CPD Programme. The new programme will be based around a framework of competencies and you will need to submit evidence of these to achieve Foundation, Registration and Fellowship status. To maintain your status, you will have to revalidate every five years.
Throughout your career you'll need to keep up to date with new technologies and digital preservation techniques. The ARA runs and participates in a range of events and there are also opportunities to attend courses, lectures and seminars coordinated by local and regional groups. It's also possible to undertake further research at PhD level.
As an archivist, you're part of a small professional network, so opportunities for promotion to high-level posts may be limited. You're likely to experience a variety of roles and environments during your working life and although long-term career prospects are generally good, a degree of flexibility, both geographically and in the type of organisation you work for, may be necessary when looking for promotion.
Many people start as assistant archivists. Some progress to senior posts with a more prominent management role. These roles usually involve taking control of budgets, staff and strategy. In central government, promotion is usually internal. Senior management positions in large organisations may be filled from outside the sector by people with substantial business or financial experience. Developing your management skills may improve opportunities for progression.
There are some opportunities for archivists to move into records management, and in some specialised areas you may have the opportunity to move into project management. As your career grows, you may develop a specialist interest in religious archives, for example. Other related areas of work include archive conservation, genealogy and historical research.