What is an archivist?

Archives exist for the living. While they record the past, their purpose is to help us to better understand the present.

It is this unique relationship with time that makes the role of archivists or recordkeepers so fascinating. The archivist’s actions will influence people’s understanding in centuries to come. Archivists or recordkeepers must therefore have a passion for history, a perceptive eye for detail, and a commitment to service. The responsibility of archivists is to act as the custodians of a society’s memory. 

Archivists: custodians of society’s memory 

To ensure the preservation of the particular and, sometimes, fragile qualities of archives, good care is fundamental. Providing this care is the role of archivists or recordkeepers, who are individuals with the skillsets required to collect manage and provide long-term access to archives and records. 

In particular, archivists:  

  • Ensure the survival of ‘Provenance’ – maintaining information about the creator of an archive is essential to ensuring that the context needed to fully understand it, establish its authenticity and demonstrate its reliability is preserved. 
  • Keep the ‘Original Order’ – preserving records in their author’s original arrangement makes it possible to maximise integrity by retaining the relationships between records, thus providing evidence of how their creators operated. The difficulty in attaining this goal is often compounded by the disappearance of the original source or the death of its creator, or by circumstances that have resulted in heavy use or frequent displacement of archival material.  

What is the different between archivists and recordkeepers? 

In fact, there is very little difference: both archivists and recordkeepers are responsible for protecting and managing the use of archives. The main difference lies in the point in its ‘lifecycle’ when a record comes into the care of the professional concerned. Recordkeepers are responsible for documents from the moment they are created by an entity up to and beyond the point when they are preserved solely as archives, whereas archivists tend to be responsible for records once they become archives and are thus no longer used for their original purpose. Regardless of this difference, both roles require the same skillsets and knowledge to ensure the physical survival and intellectual integrity of a particular file, record, archive or document.  

In some countries, archival/record-keeping careers are highly professionally categorised with clear routes of entry, qualifications, sectoral standards, and representative bodies. However, in other countries, entry to archival work is less explicitly formalised, with professionals and institutions instead working to certain established practices. It is also important to remember the many passionate individuals around the globe, who may not be considered professional archivists but who volunteer to provide archival care.

The aims of archivists 

Qualifications and title notwithstanding, anyone responsible for archives will be seeking to:  

  • Create a coherent collection through well-informed and proactive selection and collation.  
  • Effectively manage collections to ensure their long-term physical survival, preserve reliable and detailed contextual information and guarantee sustainable care.  
  • Establish a consistent access policy that enables potential users to learn about collections and use them in a way consistent with their needs.  
  • Collaborate with colleagues to discover and exploit synergies between collections, maximising opportunities for their use and preservation.  

In the pursuit of these aims, those responsible for archives may collaborate with other professionals, for example, with conservators, photographers, editors, chemists, graphic designers, IT experts, educators, artists. They will also seek to work closely with users to ensure their collections and services meet the latter’s needs.