The Archival Profession: Meeting Critical Institutional and Social Needs

By Bruce Dearstyne
Originally published in “ACA News,” July 2000.

Professional archivists, through a combination of education and experience, are qualified to identify, manage, preserve, and make available records with enduring value for documentation, research, and other purposes.

They are employed in businesses, governments, universities, historical societies, libraries, museums, and other institutions that create and wish to maintain important records of their own, or that collect and maintain records for research use. The archival field originated many years ago. As early as 1936, the Society of American Archivists was formed to advance the exchange of information among archivists, and in recent years the Academy of Certified Archivists has developed as a credentialing agency for the profession.

Archival enterprise is clearly a well-established profession. A profession is characterized by such things as high educational requirements, a solid body of theoretical and practical knowledge, service orientation and dedication, relative autonomy and independence in work, independent judgment, strategies for meeting complex issues, and a code of ethics. Professional archivists exhibit all of these traits and have commensurate responsibilities for making critical judgments and carrying out work of fundamental importance for ensuring the systematic identification, sound administration, and accessibility of important records. Archivists carry out some or all of the following functions:

  • Act as agents of the present and the past for the future. Archivists have major responsibilities for determining what records are identified, saved, and protected. Their work ensures the availability of institutional records needed for documentation, legal, and other purposes, as well as supports the transmission of cultural information and historical and other research.
  • Partner in the information field. Archivists are information professionals, and they work closely with allied professionals such as librarians, records managers, knowledge managers, information resource specialists, and information technology specialists.
  • Organize and manage comprehensive programs. Archivists organize and administer programs, and their leadership and management includes such things as setting priorities, determining goals, managing budgets, allocating resources, supervising personnel, and issuing reports.
  • Determine which records have continuing value. The heart of archival work is the systematic identification of records with enduring value. Archivists exercise independent critical judgment in carrying out this complex work through studying the functions of records-producing institutions, developing documentation plans, analyzing and evaluating series of records to ascertain their value, anticipating research and other use, and factoring in available resources.
  • Assert control and order over bodies of records. Archivists value orderliness. They concentrate on maintaining original order and keeping records according to their originating source when possible. When original order is lost, they arrange records in an order that reflects their original creation, specifically the functions and activities of the individual or organization or office that created the records, and is helpful to potential users.
  • Preserve and protect records. Archival work has important custodial and curatorial responsibilities to ensure the survival and usability of records, many of which are on fragile media, including electronic records, often the most vulnerable of all.
  • Foster access and use of records. Archivists encourage people to use archival records through production of finding aids and services to researchers who visit the archival repository or access its services and holdings via phone, letter, fax, e-mail, or the World Wide Web.
  • Broaden awareness of record information. Archivists work to increase awareness and research use of archival records, for instance, through the mounting of exhibits and the preparation of document packets for use in schools.

A Dynamic Profession

The archival profession is constantly changing, growing, and improving. Archival professionals understand that they need to keep growing and learning themselves so that their programs can keep up with changes in the information field and evolving expectations from their parent institutions, users, and other constituents. Some examples of recent or ongoing developments which are changing the way archival work is carried out are:

  • Sustained attention to the creation, identification and management of electronic archival records–those produced on and through computers–to meet their special preservation needs and ensure their continuing availability and accessibility.
  • Development of plans to promote better documentation of minority groups.
  • Partnering with records managers and other closely allied groups on initiatives and programs designed to improve management of information resources.
  • Cooperating with other professional information groups on issues relating to the national information infrastructure, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.
  • Initiation of reference services over the Web, development of home pages and web sites, and making finding aids and digital copies of records available over the Web.
  • Developing guidelines for archival education, including continuing educational opportunities for professionals in the field.

The Need for Professional Archivists

Why hire a professional archivist? Archival work is too important, complex, and demanding to be handled satisfactorily by people who lack professional training and experience. In that sense, it is comparable to familiar professions such as teaching, medicine, and the law. Like these professionals, archivists possess highly developed skills based on education, experience, and a rich body of theory and practice. They are adept at asset management, communication, resource allocation, marketing. They are versatile, applying their professionals skills and insights in changing and challenging settings. Hiring a professional archivist is a sound investment for the parent institution. It is a cost-effective way of managing an irreplaceable information resource in historical records for either or both internal and external clients. Professional archivists are fundamental to business, government, and education, indeed, to all segments of society, because of:

  • The importance of documentation. They are experts in documentation of institutions, cultural preservation, and preservation of the historical record, broadly defined.
  • The challenge of selecting for enduring value. They understand how to select the truly valuable information from among the huge quantities of records that are continually created.
  • The need for quick, easy access. They can provide access, with all the implications of that term: describing archival records so that people can recognize and get to them; providing access tools, including electronic, Web-based ones; and advising and counseling people on which records best fit their information needs.
  • The complexity of modern records. They understand the complex interrelationship between traditional tangible (mostly paper) records and electronic records, can apply preservation strategies to both, and understand how to preserve both types of records to ensure their optimal use.
  • Perspectives on information management. In an environment where business, government, and education all value information as a basis for operation, they supplement and partner with other key information professionals, for instance, in ensuring that planning for electronic information systems includes provision for maintaining information of continuing value.

Certified Archivist: The Mark of Distinction

The archival field is dynamic and marked by variety and diversity; people reach the status of professional archivist through many routes. In recent years, there has been a growing expectation for at least a Masters’ Degree in archival science, library or information science, history, or a closely related field. The Society of American Archivists, the oldest and largest professional archival association in the United States, shapes archival professionalism through its publications, conferences, workshops, and canons of best practice. For the past decade, however, the mark of distinction among archival professionals has been the designation of Certified Archivist (CA), provided by the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA), a not-for-profit, voluntary, independent accrediting agency. ACA originated in 1989 and traces its origins to the growing modern need for sophisticated methods to manage a burgeoning information infrastructure and to supply current information needs that can be met satisfactorily only by use of the documentary heritage.

The ACA certifies people in the field who have at least a master’s degree and a year of appropriate archival experience. The certification process requires candidates to take a written examination with questions in seven “domains” or areas of archival practice:

  1. Selection of documents
  2. Arrangement and description of documents
  3. Reference service and access to documents
  4. Preservation and protection of documents
  5. Outreach, advocacy, and promotion of documentary collections and  archival repositories
  6. Managing archival programs
  7. Professional, legal, and ethical responsibilities.

Certified Archivists renew their certification periodically, a process that requires submission and review of evidence of their program responsibilities, professional work, publications, and other indicators that they are maintaining current knowledge of issues, needs, and professional developments in the field.