The Job and What's Involved

An archivist manages and maintains collections of archives. These archives help the work of researchers, providing a record of how people lived in the past, and how organisations, government and institutions operated. In turn, the information we generate today will, if properly preserved, show future generations how we live and work.

Archives may consist of books, papers, maps, plans, photographs, prints, films, tapes, videos and computer records. During everyday life, people and organisations create or collect a lot of archives. Items may be collected by government agencies, local authorities, universities, businesses, charities, professional organisations, families and individuals. Increasingly, archives that have widespread interest are being digitised and made available over the internet to make them more accessible.

Archivists have an important role in working with users of their services. They explain what archives exist, how they are organised and what information they contain.

The work of an archivist is likely to include:

  • Arrangements for acquiring and retrieving records - if they belong to a private organisation or family this may involve negotiating for them to be donated or sold to the archive.
  • Identifying, evaluating and selecting documents to be preserved or destroyed.
  • Preparing record-keeping systems, including cataloguing and indexing - this may involve using specialist software to catalogue archives on computers and make them available over the internet.
  • Helping to make archives accessible to people who want to use them - this may be through computer-aided searches or making archives available on the internet.
  • Responding to requests from the public (by phone, fax, email and in person) who may be researching family history or their local community as a leisure interest or for a university project.
  • Advising on the use and interpretation of the material.
  • Arranging exhibitions and events.
  • Giving talks.
  • Managing budgets and applying for grants.

Archivists usually work with a small team. Sometimes they work alone, but are often in contact with the public and other organisations.

The working hours are usually 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, although evening and weekend work may be required. Part-time work is possible.

The working environment can vary. Some offices are comfortable and modern with good facilities, but others may be more cramped. Some tasks may have to be undertaken in dirty conditions, particularly when retrieving records. Records can be heavy and may be mouldy or dirty.

The starting salary may be from around £20,295 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There is a shortage of archivists, and employment prospects are good at the moment.

There are around 1,500 archivists in the UK. Just under half are employed in local government. The other main employers are national archives and museums, universities, businesses and charities.

Although there are opportunities in all areas of the country, a high proportion of specialist posts are in London.

Competition for places on postgraduate courses is fierce, and applicants need to gain some work experience first. This can be paid or voluntary. The Society of Archivists can provide details of organisations that offer work experience placements. Local authorities also offer voluntary opportunities.

Initially, archivists tend to be employed on fixed-term contracts, so being able to move to different parts of the country for a job is an advantage.

Jobs are advertised in the Society of Archivists' recruitment publication, ARC Recruitment, and in the national and local press.

Education and Training

To enter training as an archivist, students need a first degree in any subject. Many archivists have degrees in history, classics, languages or information science, but the class of the degree is more important than the subject. At least a 2.1 honours degree is normally required.

The minimum requirements for a degree course are two A levels and five GCSE's (A-C), or equivalent qualifications.

After gaining a first degree, students then study for a postgraduate qualification in archives and records management. The Society of Archivists recognises courses at the following universities:

University of Wales, Aberystwyth
University College Dublin
University of Liverpool
University College London
University of Dundee

There is also a course at the University of Glasgow which is likely to be accredited in the near future.

Most of these courses are offered on a one-year full-time basis, or two years part time. Opportunities for distance learning are increasing. Further information is available on the Society of Archivists' website.

Knowledge of Latin is useful for some posts in county archives, but for the majority of jobs it is not necessary.

It is possible to enter archive work at a lower level - for instance as a search room assistant - typically with A levels or equivalent qualifications. At present there is no alternative qualifying route for people entering at this level. They still need to study for a degree and a postgraduate qualification to become professional archivists. However, this may change, as new vocational qualifications are planned, which may provide a work-based route to becoming a fully-qualified archivist.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Many archivists continue with in-house training once they start work. Training opportunities vary with different employers. The Society of Archivists runs short courses and workshops.

Training may include archive interpretation, source studies, records management, dealing with electronic and digital records, and archive service management.

Once qualified, archivists are encouraged to follow the Society of Archivists' Registration Scheme, which demonstrates a commitment to Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An Archivist needs to:

  • Be committed to heritage and information management.
  • Have good communication and customer service skills.
  • Be forward thinking, as demands for information are constantly changing.
  • Have a logical mind to identify and sort information.
  • Know how to do research.
  • Be comfortable with new technology, computer packages and systems.
  • Be committed to professional development after qualifying, e.g. by acquiring management skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

Short-term contracts are common in the first two years after qualification. Once they have gained some experience, archivists are in a stronger position when applying for permanent positions.

Many people start as assistant archivists. Some progress to senior posts, taking on management responsibilities. Promotion may involve moving to another organisation or area.

It is possible to move from archive work into records management and vice-versa.

There may be some opportunities for self-employment and overseas work.

Get Further Information

Lifelong Learning UK, 5th Floor, St Andrew's House,
18-20 St Andrew Street, London EC4A 3AY
Tel: 0870 757 7890

Society of Archivists, Prioryfield House,
20 Canon Street, Taunton, Somerset TA1 1SW
Tel: 01823 327030

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