There are about 6,370 archivists working in the United States. Archivists can find employment in various fields. Approximately 45 percent are employed by museums, historical sites, and similar institutions; 25 percent work in government positions; and 19 percent work for state, local, and private educational services. Other archivists work in positions for museums, historical societies, and zoos, of for private, not-for-profit archives that serve special interests, such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York.
Archivists are also on staff at corporations, religious institutions, and professional associations. Many of these organizations need archivists to manage massive amounts of records that will be kept for posterity, or to comply with state or federal regulations. Some private collectors may also employ an archivist to process, organize, and catalog their personal holdings.
A large number of archivist positions are contract or project based, meaning that an archivist is hired to work on one collection for a specified period of time. Such projects can sometimes last for years, but when the collection has been processed, the archivist's employment comes to an end. Thus, archivists do not often have the benefit of settling into one organization for an indefinite amount of time, although they are often given the benefits of any full-time employee for the duration of their contract or project.
There is no best way to become an archivist. Since only a few colleges and universities offer degrees in archival science, many people working in the field today have paved their own way. For example, some archivists may begin by earning a master's degree in history and then a Ph.D. in history or a related field. They may go on to process collections in their university's archives. By enhancing their educational credentials with practical experience in the field, new archivists can gradually move on to positions with greater degrees of responsibility.
Another archivist may approach his or her career from a different direction. For example, an archivist could start out with a master's degree in French and then earn a master's of library science (M.L.S.) degree, with a concentration in archival management. With a language background and the M.L.S., he or she could begin working in archival positions in colleges and universities.
Candidates for positions as archivists should apply to institutions for entry-level positions only after completing their undergraduate degrees—usually in history. An archivist going into a particular area of archival work, however, may wish to earn a degree in that field. If you are interested in working in a museum's archives, for instance, you may wish to pursue a degree in art or art history.
Many potential archivists choose to work part time as research assistants, interns, or volunteers in order to gain archival experience. School career services offices are good starting points to look for research assistantships and internships. Professional librarian and archivist associations often have job listings for those new to the field.
Archivists usually work in small sections, units, or departments, so internal promotion opportunities are often limited. Promising archivists advance by gaining more responsibility for the administration of the collections. They may begin to spend more time supervising the work of others. Archivists can also advance by transferring to larger repositories and taking more administration-based positions.
Because the best jobs as archivists are contingent upon education, the surest method of advancement is through pursuing advanced or specialized degrees. Ambitious archivists should also attend conferences and workshops to stay current with developments in their fields. Archivists can enhance their status by conducting independent research and publishing their findings. In a public or private library, an archivist may move on to a position such as curator, chief librarian, or library director.
Archivists may also move outside of the standard archival field entirely. With their background and skills, archivists may become teachers, university professors, or instructors at a library school. They may also set up shop for themselves as archival consultants to corporations or private collectors.
Tips for Entry
Read publications such as American Archivist and Clearinghouse to learn more about the field.
Visit the following Web sites for job listings and career advice: https://careers.archivists.org and https://www.culturalheritage.org/resources/career.
Visit https://www2.archivists.org/assoc-orgs/directory for a directory of archival organizations in the United States and Canada. These organizations provide an excellent starting point for your job search.