Archival Librarianship

Archives differ from libraries, but they both share some characteristics. Libraries can be defined as collections of books, print or nonprint materials that have been organized and are maintained for use. Patrons can access library materials in-person or via the Internet. The purpose of a library is to make collections available to others whom they serve.

Pages in heart shape and stack piles of textbooks

While archives are also in existence to make collections available to people, they hold different types of materials than libraries, and these materials are accessed in a different manner. The types of materials held in archives may include published and unpublished materials in any format. These could be manuscripts, photographs, moving images and sound, artifacts, and digital equivalents of these things. Materials found in archives are usually quite unique, specialized or rare. 

Archived materials are accessed much differently than materials found in libraries. People who are in charge of archives, who are called archivists or archival librarians, are charged with maintaining and preserving those materials for use in the present and future. Each archive has its own regulations and guidelines for how its materials may be accessed, in order to protect those materials from damage and theft. 

Much responsibility is placed upon archival librarians to maintain collections. Here, we will examine the job of an archival librarian in depth. 

Specialized Education for Archival Librarianship

Archival librarians, like all professional librarians, must have a Master of Library Science (MLS) or Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree from a college or university that has received American Library Association (ALA) accreditation. Some schools offer concentrations in archival librarianship for those who are interested in working in that specialized field. Programs for archival librarians may be found online, on-campus and in hybrid formats, combining the two methods of education. If you choose to specialize in Archival Librarianship, concentration names might include Archival Studies, Archives Management, or Archives and Digital Curation. Classes you are likely to find include:

  • Introduction to Modern Archives Administration- This course introduces students to the profession of archival librarians, administration of archives, how to use primary sources in academic research, and archival issues arising concerning the Internet and other technologies. 
  • Preserving Information Media- Students in this course will examine all facets of archival preservation of multiple media formats. Discussions of preservation practice, policy and programming within archives will also occur. 
  • Electronic Documents and Records Management- This class looks at advanced concepts, unique challenges and ongoing issues in electronic records management. These include but are not limited to automated systems, information lifecycle management, legality, access, media stability, migration, and long-term preservation.
  • History of Books and Printing- This background course looks at the people, ideas and events in the history of bookmaking and printing, from ancient times to the 1890s.
  • Archival Outreach- This course introduces students to archival outreach programs and services. Reference services that can help sustain an archival program that is committed to public service will be emphasized. 

Certification for Archival Librarians

Optional, but recommended, professional certification is offered through the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA). This organization was founded in 1989 by the SAA and is an independent, nonprofit certifying organization of professional archivists. Archivists must meet educational and experience requirements and pass the Archival Certification Examination in order to be called a Certified Archivist. It is the only standard by which employers can judge a prospective employee’s qualifications. 

In order to qualify to take the certification exam, you must have a masters degree plus a certain number of archival science courses, as well as professional experience (ranging from one year, or 1750 hours, to two years, or 3500 hours, depending upon the number of archival science courses you have completed). The exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions based on the Role Delineation Statement for Professional Archivists, and you are given three hours to complete the exam. Passing the exam makes you eligible to join the Academy of Certified Archivists and call yourself a Certified Archivist. 

Archival Librarian Job Description

As mentioned above, the Role Delineation Statement for Professional Archivists is what the certification exam for archivists is based upon. This statement provides over 100 commonly accepted duties of professional archivists. It is impossible to list all of the duties here. Some of the most important duties found within an archival librarian’s job description include:

  • Identify sources of archival materials through applying knowledge of record creators to determine which records are appropriate for acquisition
  • Establish, maintain, and record communications with creators/donors of potential archival materials
  • Identify and evaluate record characteristics
  • Appraise archival materials for enduring value and long-term retention
  • Implement disposition recommendations or decisions through legal instruments, retention schedules, etc.
  • Design and implement an arrangement plan to identify and explain the structure, context, and content of archival materials and to promote their accessibility
  • Define users’ information needs and keep abreast of current research strategies and trends
  • Promote the use of archival materials and awareness of collections to diverse communities through public outreach and educational programming
  • Management of archival programs through the proper use of technologies to ensure records are properly preserved
  • Conform to professional and ethical standards and promote best practices in archiving

Jobs for Archival Librarians

Archivists can find job opportunities within the federal government, state and local governments, and in the private sector. Those who are certified have even more opportunities available to them. Recently, the following archivist positions were listed as open:

  • Archivist, U.S. Army War College–Carlisle Barracks, PA
    • Salary: $55,527/year
    • Support the education and training of tomorrow’s military leaders. Direct the work of Archives Technicians under the supervision of the Manuscript and Photograph Section Chief. Maintain and update organization’s records to ensure accessibility and accountability of historical materials and proper use of resources.
  • Archivist, Johns Hopkins Hospital – Baltimore, MD
    • Salary: not specified
    • Catalogue and maintain extensive archival collection of surgical and autopsy materials, including microscopic slides, paraffin blocks, permanent save wet tissue, posterity, and microfilm. 
  • Processing Archivist, The Winthrop Group – Washington, DC
    • Salary: $46,200 to $58,400 annually
    • Process archival records at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Identify records that may be candidates for future digitization. Provide regular updates to client liaison. 
  • Archives and Special Collections Librarian, Mississippi University for Women – Columbus, MS
    • Salary: $58,800 to $74,400 annually
    • Manage the archives and special collections of the university’s library. Facility discovery of and access to collection information through developing finding aids, ArchivesSpace, the library website and other technologies. Provide general and specialized reference services in-person and online.

Archival Librarians Organizations of Interest

The following organizations may be of particular interest to professional archival librarians:

Society of American Archivists (SAA): Founded in 1936, the SAA is the oldest and largest national professional association of archivists in North America. It promotes professional excellence and standards, the value and diversity of archives and archivists, and serves as the prominent resource for the profession of archival librarians. 

Library of Congress– Archives and manuscript collections exist throughout the Library of Congress. These encompass a large variety of material subjects and formats. Archives are described in terms of cataloguing and production to help archival librarians find what they are seeking.

Archives Library Information Center (ALIC)– Part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), ALIC provides researchers access to information on American history and government, archival administration, information management, and government documents.

Archival Education and Research Institutes (AERI)- These annual week-long institutes are hosted by partner institutions and are funded by four-year grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.