What’s the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Archivist?

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The records in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) outnumber employees millions to one. In fact, the NARA reports that only 3,000 employees work in NARA facilities across the United States. Though limited in numbers, archivists are specially trained in preserving original materials and helping others to obtain them. Due to the limited number of jobs available for archivists, education and experience are important. If you want to stand out among other candidates, you must follow the right archivist degree plan for your career. This article will help you determine the best degree for archivist jobs. Here, you will find useful information about the profession to assist with your research efforts.

Degrees for Archivists

Archivists working with the National Archives and Records Administration typically hold master’s degrees in a related field. Graduate degrees may be earned in various areas, such as archival studies, history, library science, political science, or public administration. But, before the master’s degree comes a four-year, bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.

The most common bachelor’s degrees for archivists include the following:

  • Archival science
  • History
  • Library science
  • Political science
  • Public administration

So, what other degree does an archivist need? Less common archivist degrees might include anthropology, English, Latin, literature, or a foreign language. If you have special interest areas you’d like to pursue as an archivist, you might consider picking up a minor or earning a concentration in that discipline.

Beyond the Archivist Degree: Licenses and Other Credentials

While no certification or license is required for archivists to work, some choose to earn certification through the Academy of Certified Archivists. The Academy offers the Certified Archivist credential, which demonstrates an archivist’s expertise and training in a particular area.

For archivists to be eligible for credentials as a Certified Archivist, they must obtain the following:

  • A master’s degree
  • Professional archival experience
  • A passing score on the required examination

Periodically, the certification must be renewed. Archivists renew their credentials by retaking the required exam or completing continuing education courses.

Experience and Advancement for Archivists

Since there are a limited number of archivist jobs available, candidates should have work experience. Experience is valuable for archivists, especially for new candidates in this role who are looking to land their first archivist position. Either during or after completing one’s education, they should try to gain experience. Candidates should volunteer, intern, or work part time during college or immediately following it. Full-time positions often require extensive experience in areas like collection management, database management, exhibit design, research, and restoration.

Advancement for archivists also requires extensive experience. There is significant competition for positions in top museums. These roles are highly sought after. As a result, candidates must have substantial work experience performing unique research and producing published work. In addition, large museums and institutions may require doctoral degrees for top positions.

Small museums and institutions have limited opportunities for advancement. To be promoted in a small institution, an archivist must gain experience. It’s often beneficial for an archivist to advance by transferring to a large institution, gaining supervisory experience there, and then transferring back to a small institution to obtain an advanced position.

Continuing education helps archivists earn valuable experience that is favorably looked upon by employers. There are different ways in which an archivist can earn continuing education credentials. These include attendance to:

  • Conferences
  • Meetings
  • Workshops

All of these should be sponsored by archival, historical, and museum associations. Larger organizations, such as the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration based in D.C., offer in-house training for archivists. These sponsorships and training are valued by employers and make a candidate stand out when competing for a job opening.

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Other Important Qualities Needed for Archivists

The work as an archivist is unique. Archivists work in solitude, spending hours alone researching various topics. Yet, at times, they must present their findings to the public. As a result, a unique blend of skills and qualities are needed. Below are several important qualities that archivists should possess.

Analytical skills
Strong analytical skills are needed to help archivists complete their day-to-day tasks. Often, archivists spend their days tracing the history, origin, and importance of certain objects. They must analyze, appraise, catalog, process, and preserve records and documents of historical value. To carry out these tasks, an archivist must be extremely analytical.

Exceptional customer-service skills
While most of the job as an archivist is performed in solitude, there are times when they must meet with the public. Especially in institutions of higher education, archivists must be courteous and friendly as they assist people in finding materials.

Detail-orientation
Since much of the job as an archivist is spent researching, archivists should be able to focus for long periods of time. They must develop complex databases and systems of organization that detail the materials they store. These tasks require that an archivist is detail-oriented.

Strong organizational skills
To develop organized and logical systems of storage for public use, archivists must have strong organizational skills. An archivist with exceptional organizational skills ensures operational efficiency, meaning that they can help an organization’s goals to be met. As a result, productivity is increased.

Different Types of Archivists

Academic
Academic archivists typically work in colleges and universities. They are responsible for preserving materials relating to the academic institution. Often, they work under the umbrella of the library or special collections division. For example, some academic archivists work for Stanford University Archives or the Duke University Archives.

Business or Corporate
Business and corporate archivists work within the archival departments of companies and corporations that preserve records for the business. Examples of corporate archives include the Kraft Foods Archives and the Ford Motor Company Archives.

Government
Archivists working in government archives often work in repositories that collect and preserve materials for local, state, and national government organizations. These locations include the City of Boston Archives, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the New York State Archives.

Historical
Historical societies employ historical archivists. Collections of historical societies might include records that relate to specific cities, communities, states, and towns. Historical archivists might also maintain some governmental records. Examples of historical societies and organizations include the National Railway Historical Society and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Museum
Museums preserve items of historical significance. Items may include:

  • artwork
  • books
  • papers

Museums and archives share the same goal – to preserve items of value. However,  museums focus more of their attention on exhibiting items for public exposure. Museum archivists work to preserve and exhibit. Examples of museums where archivists might work include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Religious
A religious archivist works in places of worship and institutions of major faith. They work with archives that relate to tradition, storing materials in repositories that may or may not be available to the public. Examples of places a religious archivist might work include the American Jewish Archives and the United Methodist Church Archives.

Special collections
Special collections institutions contain materials of significant value to individuals, families, and organizations. Archives might include:

  • fine art collections
  • literature collections
  • technology collections, and more

For example, a special collections archivist might work for the American Philosophical Society Library or the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago.

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Earnings Potential for Archivists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for archivists is $56,760. However, the highest 10% of earners make more than $91,000 per year. BLS also reports three top-paying industries for archivists. These industries are:

  • Educational services (state, local, and private)
  • Government
  • Museums, historical sites, and similar institutions

The average wages for archivists working in the above industries are as follows:

  • Educational services: $57,390
  • Government: $52,780
  • Museums, historical sites, and the like: $48,190

While industry type impacts earnings for archivists, so does geographic location. In fact, BLS reports five top-paying states for archivists. This means that archivists working in these states earn wages that are higher than the national average for this occupation. Top-paying states for this profession include:

  • District of Columbia: $88,710 (annual mean wage)
  • Massachusetts: $73,420
  • California: $72,200
  • Maryland: $71,590
  • Alaska: $70,170

There are also several top-paying metropolitan areas for archivists, as reported by BLS. The top five high-paying metro areas and the corresponding annual mean wages for archivists are as follows:

  • San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward (California): $93,450
  • San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara (California): $90,370
  • Washington, Arlington, Alexandria (DC, VA, MD, WV): $78,260
  • Ann Arbor (Michigan): $77,540
  • Boston, Cambridge, Nashua (Massachusetts and New Hampshire): $74,760

While the wages for archivists working in metro areas are significantly higher than the average earnings for this profession, one must factor in each location’s cost of living. For example, the cost of living in San Francisco is over twice the cost of living in other cities. So, while earnings are more in metro areas of California, costs for groceries, housing, and transportation are also significantly higher, especially in San Francisco. As a result, it takes more money to live in San Francisco than in some other metropolitan cities.

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Job Outlook for Archivists

The overall job outlook for archivists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 19 percent. This means that over the next 10 years, archivists, curators, and museum workers should see a 19 percent growth in overall employment. Since the national average is eight percent, employment growth for the profession of archivist is highly favorable.

According to BLS, approximately 4,900 job openings for archivists, curators, and museum professionals are expected annually for the next decade. These openings will primarily be to replace individuals who retire or exit the labor force. Some job openings will also occur as workers transfer to different occupations.

In addition to the need to replace workers, some of the employment growth for archivists is expected to come as a result of recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020. As a result of the pandemic, museums—especially government-operated facilities—closed their doors. Now museums are opening their doors and trying to recover from closures that disrupted earnings. As a result, more archivists and museum curators will be hired.

Demand for archivists is also driven by public interest. As more individuals seek exposure to cultural centers and museums, demand for archivists and curators is expected to increase. While interest in museums and cultural centers grows, more archivists and curators will be hired. However, since the occupation is small, less than 5,000 new jobs will be created. Also, archives and museums that receive federal funding may be impacted by federal budget changes. Shifts in budget and funding can have an impact on the hiring of archivists.

BLS also reports that a change in how the public accesses records will drive employment for this profession. Electronic records are the future for most public and private organizations. As a result, archivists with knowledge in this area will have the best job prospects.

The Work Environment and Schedule of an Archivist

According to BLS, archivists, curators, and museum professionals hold about 35,000 jobs each year. Of that number, about 8,100 are archivists. There are three major employers for this profession. The largest employer, which should come as no surprise, is the group of museums, historical sites, cultural centers, and similar institutions. Approximately 34% of archivists work in one of these places.

The government is the second-largest employer for archivists. BLS reports that 24% of archivists hold government positions. Lastly, educational services employ 18% of archivists, making it the third-largest employer for this profession.

The customary working environment for an archivist is in a:

  • library
  • museum
  • university

Those who work for educational institutions generally work as part of a team. They may spend hours at a desk or with the public, as they provide reference assistance and information in education services. Archivists may also spend their time conducting research on a computer.

The archivist profession is typically conducted in a quiet environment.

BDP Staff
December 2021

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This concludes our article on what’s the best degree path to becoming an archivist.

Brenda Rufener
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