What’s an archivist?

I can’t tell you how many times I was asked that question when I used to tell people that I was an archivist. Anyway, here’s something that may (or may not) be of interest to some of you. It’s from my SAA listserv

“Be nice to the archivist or she will erase you from history.”


Yahoo! Jobs Assessment of Archivists
Date: Tue, 23 Sep 2008 09:06:26 -0400
To: “Archives & Archivists (A&A) List”

★ Apparently, we qualify as low stress with high potential…..(Scroll down to below mathematician)


And mostly spend our days planning exhibitions.

★ Low stress?? From where did they obtain their stats??

★ Wow, it sounds like this professor never actually talked to an archivist or knows really what a “typical” archivist does. It makes us sound like all we do is put together exhibits and that most of us only need a bachelor’s degree. I would also like to know what school gives a bachelor’s degree in Library Science.

★ How about the stress factor of landing that permanent, full-time archives position?
-grad student working part time in three archives and an academic library

★ The author of the article and book clearly doesn’t know squat about archivists if he thinks our main focus is exhibits and we need only a bachelor’s degree.

★ But, she’s the “chic urban scribe” and knows all…http://www.vickisalemi.com/

★ Does anyone have easy access to this book today? (I know it can be purchased online and checked out from various libraries, but I was wondering if anyone on the list has it handy.) I’d be curious as to what the full entry says, and whether this is a case of Yahoo oversimplifying or if the characterization of archivists really is as inaccurate as it seems to be from this synopsis.

★ Well, my alma mater (UNC) offers a Bachelor’s in Information Studies, although that certainly wouldn’t make you an ALA-accredited librarian. As for the Yahoo! article, I sense SAA’s next bumper sticker/T-shirt: Archives: They Only Look Easy! Good idea. What about it, SAA????

★ Low stress? This is one of the most dangerous jobs I’ve had. Mold, lethal chemicals, dealing with potential donors….I’m lobbying for hazard pay!

★ well if you go through this listing at Google I suspect you’ll find contact information for Dr. Shatkin, you can write to him

★ also here is the info on the author of the article: http://www.vickisalemi.com/

★ I just saw Kate Theimer’s blog and her most recent post is about this same article. Check it out. It’s a good one. http://www.archivesnext.com/

★ Gosh, I usually read Yahoo articles for their glib relationship advice and the latest video of stupid pet tricks/adorable children, but now I’ll have to start accessing their informative career articles as well!

★ Really, if there has ever been a stupider, more inaccurate and more poorly edited blurb on Archivists published on a mainstream website I’d like to see it.

★ Years ago, I got a B.A. double major in library science and history from The College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, MN, which is about to become a University. I went on to get a Master’s degree but was able to test out of some classes, which enabled me to take others like the archives sequence at UW-Madison. The library program is now Master’s level though. See link:

http://minerva.stkate.edu/graduate.nsf/pages/mlis You will note that they also offer a series of archives classes

I like that t-shirt idea.

★ Don’t have the Shatkin book locally, but its Amazon page already has a review from an irate travel agent who disagrees with his assessment of that profession, so I think archivists are not the only ones being misrepresented.


★ I wonder if there’s a similar entry in his “Best Jobs for Introverts” book about archivists? Anyone have that one around?


4 Responses to “What’s an archivist?”

  1. Laurence Shatkin Says:

    I’m the author of the book. You wanted to know what the full entry on Archivists says, and in fact it reads quite differently from what the journalist wrote up. (My guess is that she accidentally put in the facts for a different occupation.) Here it is:

    Education/Training Required: Master’s degree
    Annual Earnings: $40,730
    Growth: 14.4%
    Annual Job Openings: 795
    Self-Employed: 1.3%
    Part-Time: 32.4%
    Level of Stress Tolerance Needed: 48.0 (out of 100)
    Most Stressful Aspects: None greater than average.
    Least Stressful Aspects: Pace Determined by Speed of Equipment (1.0); Deal With Physically Aggressive People (3.5); Level of Competition (23.5); Frequency of Conflict Situations (24.3).

    Appraise, edit, and direct safekeeping of permanent records and historically valuable documents. Participate in research activities based on archival materials. Create and maintain accessible, retrievable computer archives and databases, incorporating current advances in electric information storage technology. Organize archival records and develop classification systems to facilitate access to archival materials. Authenticate and appraise historical documents and archival materials. Provide reference services and assistance for users needing archival materials. Direct activities of workers who assist in arranging, cataloging, exhibiting, and maintaining collections of valuable materials. Prepare archival records, such as document descriptions, to allow easy access to information. Preserve records, documents, and objects by copying records to film, videotape, audiotape, disk, or computer formats as necessary. Establish and administer policy guidelines concerning public access and use of materials. Locate new materials and direct their acquisition and display. Research and record origins and historical significance of archival materials. Specialize in an area of history or technology, researching topics or items relevant to collections to determine what should be retained or acquired. Coordinate educational and public outreach programs such as tours, workshops, lectures, and classes. Select and edit documents for publication and display, applying knowledge of subject, literary expression, and presentation techniques.
    Personality Type: Investigative. Investigative occupations frequently involve working with ideas and require an extensive amount of thinking. These occupations can involve searching for facts and figuring out problems mentally.

    GOE—Interest Area: 05. Education and Training. Work Group: 05.05. Archival and Museum Services. Other Jobs in This Work Group: Audiovisual Collections Specialists; Curators; Museum Technicians and Conservators.

    Skills—Programming: Writing computer programs for various purposes. Writing: Communicating effectively in writing as appropriate for audience needs. Reading Comprehension: Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents. Quality Control Analysis: Conducting tests and inspections of products, services, or processes to evaluate quality or performance. Operations Analysis: Analyzing needs and product requirements to create a design. Persuasion: Persuading others to change their minds or behavior.

    Education and Training Programs: Art History, Criticism and Conservation; Cultural Resource Management and Policy Analysis; Historic Preservation and Conservation; Historic Preservation and Conservation, Other; Museology/Museum Studies; Public/Applied History and Archival Administration. Related Knowledge/Courses: Clerical Practices: Administrative and clerical procedures and systems such as word processing, managing files and records, stenography and transcription, designing forms, and other office procedures and terminology. History and Archeology: Historical events and their causes, indicators, and effects on civilizations and cultures. Computers and Electronics: Circuit boards, processors, chips, electronic equipment, and computer hardware and software, including applications and programming. English Language: Structure and content of English language, including meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar. Administration and Management: Business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modeling, leadership technique, production methods, and coordination of people and resources. Customer and Personal Service: Principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction.

    Hope this helps.

  2. Gayle Says:

    Thank you Mr. Shatkin for your reply. I hope this does make clearer what an archivist is and does. An archivist also has to be very attentive to detail and like to do somewhat boring tasks such as taking all the staples and rusty old paperclips off of hundreds of pages of documents–very carefully! The two main principles of archival work is provenance (provenience) and original order. In other words, it is important (1) to know whence your collection came and how it came, if possible, and (2) try and keep the order in which you received it. Now (2) is not always possible as sometimes (many times) the order in which the original owner kept the collection gets messed up as the collection passes through other people (i.e., after the original owner dies) and thus sometimes the archivist must arrange the collection in the logical order in which he/she thinks it was or should be.

    (This has nothing to do with your article but thought I would put it in here anyway.) There seems to be a great misconception among some people that archivists hold collections “close to their chests” and have the power over access to collections. This is totally untrue. One of the main policies (and in their code of ethics) of archivists is “open access,” and most archivists will allow anyone access to any collection. The restrictions to collections are put on by the donors, not the archivists, and by the government. Some information is redacted because of privacy laws, such as social security numbers. But usually that is blacked out and the rest of the document is accessible. Anyway, had to get that off my chest.

  3. smdeane Says:

    I saw that article on Yahoo too…and I agree that I found it particularly odd that an “archivist” was listed and not to mention, as “low stress.” You had some good points (and quite humorous too) when it comes to working with dangerous chemicals…I think you have a case when it comes to ” extra pay for hazardous duties!

  4. Elsy Veldkamp Says:

    This was a Great post, I will save this post in my StumbleUpon account. Have a good evening.

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