Who is an archivist?

Archives are for life and for living. They are not about getting lost in the past but about understanding the present.

Being an archivist or record keeper is a fascinating role. There are not many jobs where it can be said that what you do today will matter hundreds of years from now. An archivist or record keeper needs a passion for history, an eye for detail and a strong commitment to service. The return is to be a custodian of society's memory.

The archivist : custodian of society's memory

Clearly archives need good care to ensure these precise and sometimes fragile qualities are maintained. But who is going to make sure that records are cared for in such as way that these qualities and information are maintained? That is the role of the Archivist or Record Keeper - someone with specific skills of collecting, managing and providing access to archives and records for the long term. In particular they:

  • Ensure the survival of the ‘Provenance' - maintain information about the creator of the archives in order to preserve the context and ensure survival of meaningful content within the archive.
  • Keep the ‘Original Order' i.e. keep the records in the arrangement which they were put by the creating body so as to retain relationships between records and thus provide evidence about how the creator carried out their activities. This can be easier said than done if the creator has long since disappeared and archives have been moved around or heavily used.

Archivists and record keepers

What's the difference between an Archivist and a Record Keeper? Essentially there is none as they are both responsible for the survival and use of archives. However, in some organisations and countries there is the record keeper who is responsible for the survival  from creation of the record through to the archive stage, whereas the archivist tends to be responsible for the record at the point at which it becomes an archive. Both will have the same skills set and knowledge to ensure the physical survival and intellectual integrity of the archive.

In some countries, such as the UK, the archive/record keeping professions are professionalised with clear routes of entry, qualification and professional standards as well as representative bodies. However, in other regions there is not an explicit professional framework and people work to certain established practices. It should be remembered that around the globe there are many volunteers and other enthusiastic individuals who care for archives but would not realise that they are in essence archivists

The aims of an archivist

Whatever the qualifications or title, anyone responsible for archives will be seeking to achieve a number of aims:

  • Create a coherent collection through well-informed and pro-active selection and collecting
  • Effective collection management which ensures the long-term physical survival of collections, the creation of reliable and detailed information about the content of the collections and sustainable care to ensure the long-term survival of collections.
  • A coherent access programme which ensures that anyone that wants to use the contents of the archive can easily find out about the collection and access its contents in a way convenient to their own needs. 
  • Collaboration with others to exploit synergies between archive collections and maximise opportunities for using and preserving collections.

To achieve these aims those responsible for archives may well work in collaboration with other professionals such as conservators, information technology experts, educators and artists, as well as working closely with users to ensure collections and services are relevant to their needs.