Historians in Archives

Overview of the Field

Historians rely on careful research and documentary evidence to support their arguments, and depend on various kinds of archives for access to primary source collections. Fortunately, historians rarely have to confront a mass of information unaided. As much as they depend on historical sources, they rely on archivists to arrange, describe, preserve, and provide access to source collections. Although not all archivists do historical research, the essential skills of the historian and those of the archivist are similar. Archivists must analyze, classify, describe, and organize the materials in their collections. A strong background in history can assist an archivist in analyzing the importance of information, and the research skills learned as a history student can help the archivist understand researchers’ needs.

Archives may be large or small, ranging in size from a small unit in a house museum to the massive collections of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which houses millions of government documents. An archivist may find him- or herself on the staff of a complex state archives or academic research collection, or as the “lone arranger” at a small historical society or a corporate archives.

Broadly speaking, archives fall into two categories: those which preserve the permanently valuable records of their own institution, and those which collect the historically valuable documents of others outside of their institution. Some archives perform both functions. Many institutions—such as corporations; federal, state, and local governments; universities and educational institutions; churches; hospitals; and community organizations—maintain archives. Although the size, quality, and sophistication of these archives may vary, they share the common goal of preserving the collective or institutional memory of the society or the organization of which they are a part. As caretakers and providers of access to this memory, archivists play a crucial role in the historical process.

Scope of Training

In the past, archivists in the United States have had great diversity in training. Some archivists in small repositories have had no formal graduate education, relying instead on workshops sponsored by local and national professional organizations for their training. Others hold one or two master’s degrees and a few have Ph.D.’s. Increasingly, however, under leadership from the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and its “Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies,” most archives now require their professional archival staff to hold a graduate degree. Educational institutions that offer a degree in archival studies generally do so through their history or library science programs. The current guidelines and a list of schools that offer archival education programs are available from the SAA web site, listed at the end of this pamphlet.
The degree most frequently required for entry-level archival positions is a master’s degree, either in history (usually American history) or in library and information science. History department archival education generally is located within public history programs. The archival curriculum in such programs usually provide a series of several courses that teach the fundamental concepts of archival theory and practice, as well as requiring some “real world” experience through a practicum or internship. History department archival education programs also introduce students to good historical research practices.

The other degree often desired by employers is a master’s in library and information science (M.L.S. or M.L.I.S.). While popular perception links such training to a career in librarianship, this degree offers an intellectual approach to management of information, whether generated in the past or the present, and the technical skills that an archivist needs. Several excellent archival education programs are located in colleges or schools of library and information science. In addition to teaching the fundamentals of archival theory and practice, library schools that offer archives courses may include work in preservation management, book and paper conservation, cataloguing, electronic information systems, and records management. As electronic records and sharing information over the Internet become increasingly important for archives, computer skills are becoming essential for the archivist. University programs in library and information science have been pioneers in the application of digital technology to the complex problems generated by the modern proliferation of information and the growing public demand for access to that information.

Because job requirements vary, it is often useful for candidates to have both a degree in history and a degree in library science. Although these degrees can be earned separately, several schools offer joint degree programs that will allow you to earn both degrees at the same time, sometimes in less time than it would take to earn the two degrees separately. The NCPH Guide to Graduate Programs in Public History lists such schools, as does the “Directory of Archival Education” found on the SAA web site.

While entry-level positions rarely require a Ph.D., upper-level administrative positions may carry such a requirement. Again, a student has several options. There are several programs that offer a Ph.D. in public history, a specialized Ph.D. in information science or archival studies, or a degree in American history with public history as a field of concentration. Some positions may require additional certification. The Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA) is an independent organization that offers testing for certification several times per year. The exam covers a wide range of archival principles and theory. Students who have completed a graduate degree in the field may take the examination at the conclusion of their studies, although they do not receive formal certification until they have completed two years of professional work. Re-certification is required every five years to retain the designation of certified archivist. Further information about the ACA can be found on its web site, listed at the end of this pamphlet.

Once the archivist has completed formal graduate training, he or she may take continuing education courses to learn new skills or keep up with changes in the field. The SAA offers workshops, both at its annual meeting and at other sites around the country. Most of these workshops are designed for people with archival experience. The Northeast Document Conservation Center offers workshops specifically about preservation issues. Finally, regional or state archival associations may also offer workshops in areas of local interest.

Recent Trends in the Job Market

Archivists fall into several broad categories. While some archivists can specialize, a single archivist may have to balance all of these roles at a smaller institution.


Acquisitions archivists are responsible for bringing material into the collection. In an institution where state law or corporate policy decrees that material must be sent to the archives, this archivist insures that the appropriate material is actually received. In a manuscript collection or archives where material does not arrive automatically, archivists must identify existing collections that fit the collecting policy of their institution and work with donors to secure them for the institution. A knowledge of history helps these archivists understand what material will help augment and improve the holdings of their institution.


Processing archivists prepare collections for use by researchers and create the tools that help those researchers find information within them. They “arrange” a collection by determining the best order for documents within a collection, and they “appraise” a collection by assessing the historical significance of materials in the collections and deciding whether the documents will be retained. Because this job entails discarding parts of the collection (due to constraints of space and the historical insignificance of the discarded items), a keen eye and understanding of history are vital for this work. A processing archivist must balance historical relevance and the potential needs of researchers against the equally real constraints of time and ability of the archives to maintain the collection. The final product of the processing archivist’s work is a finding aid to the collection, which describes the contents of the collection in detail.


Reference archivists serve as a liaison between the researching public and the institution. As the public face of the archives, they must have good interpersonal skills and understand how to help a diverse body of researchers, from experienced scholars to amateur genealogists. They must be expertly familiar with the holdings of the institution and able to recommend new avenues of exploration to researchers. In addition, they must have the ability to make connections between users’ requests and recent secondary literature, as well as a knowledge of the related holdings in other repositories.

Preservation Administration and Conservation

Preservation administrators and conservators specialize in the physical maintenance of the holdings of a repository. In general, preservation administrators are responsible for broad policies and practices that affect the holdings of an archives, insuring that the building’s temperature and humidity are adequate for the objects, and educating users and co-workers about the importance of preservation activities. The work of conservators may include physical repair of damaged objects and the creation of special storage or housing appropriate for unusual or fragile objects. The same person may fill both roles in an institution, as the expertise from both areas is necessary to help defend paper against the multiple causes of decay. Although some library schools offer course work in conservation, most conservators today undergo a period of apprenticeship with an established conservator.

More specialized skills may be required of archivists as the pace of technological innovation continues. Electronic records, for example, already pose a serious and growing challenge for archivists. While procedures for preserving paper materials are relatively well established, methods for preserving electronic records are still under debate. Some repositories are already hiring electronic records archivists, so students with an interest in computers and in shaping the future of the profession will find a particular interest in electronic records.

Many archives engage in outreach activities to make the public and researchers aware of their collections. Archivists often play a role in designing displays, publishing educational materials for teachers and documentary editions from their collections, and giving lectures to historians or other researchers. Archivists work with the public in many ways and at many levels. For example, increasing numbers of Americans are interested in learning about their family’s history, and eager to know about archival resources that might help them access their family’s past. Archivists with knowledge about and interest in genealogy play an important role both as reference archivists and in other outreach activities.

Some historians employed as archivists work in the corporate world, in company archives. Corporations benefit from preserving their institutional memory, especially as they make decisions about their future. Archivists working in corporations may also be called upon to write institutional histories, perhaps to celebrate a particular anniversary or to support an institutional stocktaking. History in the corporation can also involve oral history: interviewing managers, decision makers, and long-time employees in order to capture the attitudes and activities of the men and women who made the company a success.

Finally, archivists should be aware of the records management field, which deals with the current records of an institution or entity. Records managers are responsible for a systematic approach to the creation, use, and eventual permanent retention or disposal of the voluminous paper and electronic documentation generated by large (and small) modern business, educational, charitable, government, and other organizations. They may help to set up an office file system, assist in the design of the databases to collect information and generate reports, or devise retention schedules for the records that an institution generates, based on the value of the information or legal requirements. They must be cognizant of the needs of an organization to determine which records must be kept immediately at hand and which can be sent to remote storage, archived, or destroyed. Although records management education is not as well developed as archival education, some library or business schools offer appropriate course work. The Institute for Certified Records Managers handles certification.