Questions About Archives and Archivists
What is an Archivist? How is an archive different from a library? How do you become an archivist? Find the answers to these questions and more below.
- What kind of training do I need to become an archivist?
- What is the difference between an archives and a records center?
- What is the difference between an archivist and a librarian or other closely related professional? (Answered on the Society of American Archivists' website. Use your BACK button to return to this list.)
- What is the difference between NARA and the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Institution?
- Where can I get advice on starting an archives?
Archivists typically, though not exclusively, possess graduate degrees in either history or library science. A number of colleges and universities offer courses in archival administration, usually within their graduate history or library science offerings, and some employers will look for such courses in the background of candidates. (Note also that a few archival programs lead to joint graduate degrees in both fields.) See the Society of American Archivist's (SAA) Education Directory to learn more about the various archival education opportunities. The SAA's Employment Bulletin is a good place to get a feel for who hires archivists and what these employers look for.
Most archival institutions welcome volunteers. The National Archives and Records Administration offers a wide range of voluntary student internships at our facilities around the country. On the other hand, you may wish to contact local and state governments, college and university libraries, and historical societies about opportunities near you. In either case, service in an archival institution either as a volunteer or an employee would be a good way to learn more about the field.
For a discussion of archival careers, see the Archivists and Curators entry in the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook.
An archives is the repository of the permanently valuable records of an organization. Such records are traditionally transferred to an archives, both physically and legally, when the organization that created them no longer needs them in the course of business. Archival records then become available to researchers who use them not only to document the history of the organization that created them but also to research the society of which that organization is part.
A records center is a storage area for records no longer needed for everyday use. Records in a records center may be either temporary records (those waiting for their destruction date) or permanent (those waiting to be transferred to an archives.) Records in a records center are traditionally still in the legal custody of the organization that created or received them; as a result the creating organization, rather than the records center staff, controls access to these records.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is an independent federal agency that helps preserve our nation's history and define us as a people by overseeing the management of all federal records. NARA's primary purpose is to acquire, preserve, and make available for research the most valuable records of the federal government, as well as the papers of each President since Hoover. NARA also establishes policies and procedures for managing federal records, assists federal agencies in carrying out their records management responsibilities, provides grants for historical publication and records preservation projects through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and publishes laws, regulations, and Presidential documents.
The Library of Congress is both a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress. It also serves as the copyright agency of the United States, a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in most subjects from throughout the world, one of the world's largest providers of bibliographic data and products, the home of the nation's poet laureate, a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials, and the world's largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures, and television programs.
The Smithsonian Institution is the national museum of the United States and a center for research dedicated to public education, national service, and scholarship in the arts, sciences, and history. It is composed of sixteen museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and numerous research facilities in the United States and abroad. The Smithsonian currently holds some 140 million artifacts and specimens in its trust for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."
In the Society of American Archivists' (SAA) catalog of publications, see the entry for Starting an Achives, by Elizabeth Yakel (SAA and Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1994).