If you're passionate about preserving history for future generations, you'll enjoy a career as an archivist
Archivists acquire, manage and maintain documents and other materials that have historical and cultural importance for individuals, organisations and nations.
A large part of your work is related to preserving information and making it accessible to users, increasingly in digital format.
Archives may include valuable historical books, papers, maps and plans, as well as 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
- catalogue collections and manage information and records
- promote your work through exhibitions, presentations, talks and visits
- liaise with donors and depositors of archives
- advise and support 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
- be customer focused and respond to enquiries from the public, businesses, academics and other users
- identify ways of protecting and preserving collections
- arrange the acquisition and retrieval of records
- 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 developing and implementing strategies.
- 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 £45,000.
- 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 on site in difficult conditions, particularly when rescuing records from basements or disused buildings.
- You're 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. Some posts, for example those receiving Lottery funding, 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.
You'll need a first degree followed by a postgraduate qualification accredited by the ARA. Although the subject of your first degree doesn't usually matter, many archivists have degrees in history, law, classics and English. In specialist areas, for example scientific archives services, a relevant degree may be useful.
Competition for places on a postgraduate course is fierce and you'll 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, see Careers in Archives.
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.
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 archiving
- competence in administrative procedures and project management skills.
Knowledge of the data protection and freedom of information legislation may also be useful.
You'll need to have good quality voluntary or paid work experience to get a place on a postgraduate course. 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 - Find an archive.
Student membership of ARA is useful and benefits include access to vacancies, discounts on training, networking opportunities and access to the ARC Magazine.
Many archivists are employed by local government. Opportunities are also available with:
- The National Archives and the National Records 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
- religious foundations
- media organisations
- professional 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. With experience, it may be possible to work as a self-employed archivist.
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
Once qualified, you're encouraged to continue your professional development in order to develop your skills, build up your professional knowledge and establish a network of contacts.
The ARA offers a professional development programme through which you can qualify as a Foundation (FMARA), Registered (RMARA) or Fellow (FARA) member of the ARA, depending on your qualifications and experience. It's based around a framework of competencies, and to qualify you'll need to submit a portfolio of evidence showing how you meet the required standard for each level of membership (and professional qualification) you apply for. You must also adhere to the ARA code of professional ethics and revalidate your level of membership every five years.
It's also possible to gain accreditation through the Information and Records Management Society (IRMS) once you have five years' experience in the profession. Accreditation entitles you to use the post-nominal letters AMIRMS. To apply, you'll need to submit either a written application or a shorter summary application and an oral interview.
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. Although long-term career prospects are generally good, you may need a degree of flexibility, both geographically and in the type of organisation you work for, when looking for promotion.
Professional membership of ARA at Registered (RMARA) or Fellow (FARA) level and IRMS Accreditation can help progress your career as it shows that your skills, experience and knowledge are at a particular standard and that you're committed to the profession.
Many people start as assistant archivists before moving into full archivist roles. As your career grows, you may develop a specialist interest or broaden your skills and progress.
It's possible to progress to senior posts with a more prominent management role. These roles usually involve taking control of budgets, staff and strategy. 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 expand their career across archiving, conservation and records management. Other related areas of work include archive conservation, genealogy and historical research.