Holding History: Revealing the Archivist’s Role

This poster was created for International Archives Week to help spread awareness of the importance of archives and archivists around the world. Learn more about International Archives Week here.

The job of an archivist is a diverse one, with many changes occurring as the world increasingly relies on digital access. Archivists can have different job responsibilities, training requirements, and goals. There are a variety of types of archives and they can be found in many different institutions including art galleries, museums, libraries, hospitals, corporations, churches, universities and colleges, and more. Each archive has its own goals, priorities, and mission statements. However, archives operate with three important objectives – that they acquire and preserve items for future use, they educate about and illuminate the past, and that they be accessible for the public to utilize them.

Working in archives can be an independent position, and it is not uncommon for an archivist to be the only one in the organization or institution they work for. Smaller archives in Canada and the United States may be run by only one or two archivists, with other staff, volunteers or students in supporting roles who may be learning archival best practices. Due to this, archivists must have strong communication skills to explain the importance of their work to people who are less aware of what archives are. An archivists’ job description may depend on the organization that they work for. In larger archives, archivists are more likely to have specific job descriptions and may need specialized training for their role, such as digital archivists. In smaller organizations, archivists can have a wider variety of responsibilities including processing and arranging records, creating descriptive inventories, uploading information and images to online databases, digitization, creating small exhibits to promote the archives, social media management, and more.

The United Farmers Historical Society Archives are run by Archivist Erin Hoar. She does a little bit of everything while running the archives, including answering research requests and overseeing a small Reading Room, where researchers can sit and peruse archival materials. Other responsibilities include ensuring the safety of archival materials, applying for grants, giving tours, and speaking at events to educate the public about archives. The public outreach portion of an archivist’s job in a small archives is very important, but can be a time-consuming part of the role. (Read more about Erin and UFHS here).

An example of public outreach – this Test Your Trivia brochure was created for the UFA Annual General Meeting in 2022 to help improve recognition of the archives through a fun game.

While many archivists love history, some of the responsibilities of an archivist are unrelated to history and are functional tasks. The delicate items housed in an archive require a carefully considered environment. In order to achieve that, archivists must think of all possible issues including fire safety, security, pest control, temperature and humidity control, copyright considerations and much more. Archivists must also complete many administrative tasks to make sure that people looking at the records in the future can understand what has been done and why. Statistics on the use of the archives, ensuring that the proper supplies are in stock, answering emails and phone calls, and overseeing volunteers and student interns are all tasks that may seem secondary to the focus of keeping archives but are just as essential. Those who take on the role of an archivist must also be well versed in the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct that each country has. Archival material can contain sensitive information, especially in government, hospital or religious archives. When archivists are deciding whether an item or document should have open access or should be digitized and made available on a database, they must think about the agreement made with the donor, whether consent has or could be received from the subject of the record, and whether that item has any cultural or spiritual significance. The work requires a strong understanding of ethical issues as well as decision-making skills.

Archival items are kept in specific types of storage containers, such as these boxes which are acid-free and made for archival records.

Needless to say, archivists also spend a lot of time working with unique, historically important documents, audio-visual materials and even artifacts. In order to take proper care of archival records, archivists must be careful about what new records they accept into the collection to make sure they follow the mandate of the organization and that they have the time and resources to properly take care of the items.

Many archives are also allocating time and resources towards digitizing their collections. This is a time consuming and sometimes difficult project, since there are often a variety of other competing priorities that need to be addressed each day. Not all photographs and documents can be put online for everyone to access since they may have sensitive information in them, and archives often have a backlog of materials that may need to be prioritized by what is most widely requested or most useful and therefore digitized first.

Much of archival work is done on computers, including adding information to the publicly accessible online database, updating social media accounts, and digitizing as shown in this image.

Overall, the role of an archivist is a busy and complex one. There is always lots to do in the archive, and although archivists are always working on something they are happy to help anyone who wants to utilize the archives!

Written by Katherine Funk, Summer Archives Assistant

An example of the many photos that have already been digitized and added to our online database.
UF 2021.028.01

References and Further Reading:

Association of Canadian Archivists. Association of Canadian Archivists Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Ottawa: October 18, 2017.

Cole, Laura et al., eds.. A Manual for Small Archives. Vancouver: Archives Association of British Columbia, 2021.

Danielson, Elena. “Secret Sharers.” The American Scholar 80, no. 4. (2011): 39-46. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41434987.

Thompson, Samantha. “What Do Archivists Do All Day?” Archives at PAMA. Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives. Last modified July 16, 2015: https://peelarchivesblog.com/2015/07/16/what-do-archivists-do-all-day/.

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