Archivists - What They Do

Archivists manage, process, store and disseminate information contained in an organization's archives. They acquire, store and research textual material, pictures, maps, architectural documents, electronic materials, films and videos, and sound recordings and multimedia materials. They are employed in archives, in the public and para-public sectors and in private sector organizations.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Develop policies and procedures for managing current and semicurrent archives, in particular corporate cataloguing systems, records scheduling and disposal, and finding aids
  • Design programs for managing, disseminating and storing archives of all types (documents, photographs, maps, audio-visual materials, manuscripts, etc.)
  • Plan the computerized management of archives and the management of electronic archives
  • Appraise and acquire archival materials to build and develop an archival collection for research purposes
  • Authenticate documents and records, and research the origins and significance of archival materials
  • Organize noncurrent archives and develop cataloguing and retrieval systems to allow access to archival materials
  • Assist people with their searches.

Job titles

  • archivist
  • historical archivist
  • multimedia archivist
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • A bachelor's degree with a minor in archival studies or A university degree with a certificate in archival studies is required.
  • A master's degree in archival studies, archival studies and information science, library science or history may be required.

Essential Skills


  • Read notes and comments written on forms and drawings. For example, they may read notes written by co-workers and supervisors to learn about phone calls and inquiries. They may read comments on database forms to learn about the restrictions placed on artifacts and the sources of acquisitions. (1)
  • Read e-mail from co-workers, colleagues and supervisors. For example, they may read e-mail to learn about matters such as upcoming meetings and additions to collections of archival materials. (2)
  • Read notices and bulletins. For example, the may read notices and bulletins to learn about upcoming training sessions and changes to operating procedures such as hours of work. (2)
  • Read letters from donors, historians, researchers and contractors. For example, they read letters from donors and historians to learn about recently-acquired artifacts and related historical events. They may read letters from researchers and conservators to learn about research projects and restoration procedures for artifacts. (3)
  • Read policy and procedure manuals and collective agreements. For example, they may read their organization's policy manuals to learn about dress codes and standards of practice. They may read Rules of Archival Description and International Organization for Standards manuals to identify standards for documenting, metadata tagging and digitizing textual records. Archivists with supervisory responsibilities may read collective agreements to learn about the responsibilities of employers and employees and procedures to follow for grievances. (3)
  • Read articles in trade magazines to stay informed about industry trends and practices. For example, architectural archivists may read articles published by magazines such as the Canadian Architect Magazine to learn about new design trends and award-winning architects. (3)
  • Read a variety of reports and grant applications. For example, they may read appraisal reports to learn about artifacts' physical descriptions, histories and creators and their evidential and informational value. Archivists who are responsible for soliciting donations and funding may read application procedures to learn about the proposal and grant requirements of funding bodies such as governments and charitable foundations. (4)
  • Read legislation and regulations. For example, personal records archivists may read sections of the Privacy Act to review the rules governing the privacy of photographed individuals. Historical archivists may read the Cultural Property Export and Import Act to learn about the legislation governing the export and import of cultural property. Corporate record archivists may read the Copyright Act to learn the procedures to follow when handling and displaying copyrighted materials. (4)
  • Read professional journals and textbooks. For example, they may read journals such as Archivaria to learn about new archival techniques and processes and rules for archival description. Historical archivists may read old textbooks to research changes in perceptions of historical events and figures and to appraise the books' historic and informational value. They may read textbooks on canon law to learn how changes to religious practices have affected the archiving of parish registries. (4)

Document use

  • Locate data on labels, catalogue cards, and copyright notices. For example, they may scan metadata labels to identify archival processes such as the resolutions and other settings used to reproduce photographs and other images. They scan catalogue cards and copyright notices for dates, titles, identification numbers and descriptions. (1)
  • Locate data in a variety of entry forms. For example, multimedia archivists scan image reproduction forms to locate contact information, registration numbers, sizes, titles and the intended uses of archived materials. (2)
  • Locate data in lists and tables. For example, corporate record archivists scan lists and tables to locate metatag data such as identification numbers, medias, major and minor descriptions, dates, quantities and sizes. (2)
  • Complete scheduling, assessment, permission, accession, reporting, data collection and entry forms. For example, personal records archivists use artifact collection forms to record contact information, dates, times and identification numbers. Archivists with supervisory responsibilities complete acquisition forms to describe the sorting, cleaning, preserving, labelling, recording and storing of artifacts. (3)
  • Observe details in pictures and drawings. For example, they may date vintage photographs by observing details such as light standards, fire hydrants and the clothing worn by pedestrians. They may review architectural drawings in order to identify scales, orientations, buildings, architects and drafting methods. (3)


  • Write reminders and notes to co-workers. For example, they may write notes to remind themselves of dates and times for upcoming meetings. (1)
  • Write instructions, descriptions and comments in forms such as processing checklists, accession records and reproduction orders. For example, they may write comments in accession records to explain why requests for access to artifacts were denied. They may write special instructions for handling large documents when requesting the reproduction of photographs and drawings. (2)
  • Write brief e-mail. For example, they may e-mail co-workers and supervisors to discuss record transfers and the dates of upcoming meetings. (2)
  • Write letters to donors, colleagues and members of the general public. For example, they may write letters of thanks to donors of artifacts. They may write letters to colleagues such as historians to request information about historical contexts and to explain cataloguing decisions. They may write letters to the general public to explain artifact procurement and lending policies and to respond to questions and comments. (3)
  • May write grant proposals to request funding. For example, archivists with responsibilities to acquire donations and funding may write proposals to request support for special archival projects. They describe their organizations' mandates, explain the importance of their projects and outline budgets and timelines. (3)
  • Write operating and activity reports. For example, they may write activity reports to record information such as requests received, items loaned and the status of new acquisitions. (3)
  • Write information sheets, accession records and biographies to describe artifacts and summarize the lives of historical figures. For example, they write information sheets to describe newly-acquired artifacts and outline their historical significance. They write biographical sketches of prominent citizens and public figures by recording the subjects' formative years and their accomplishments. They write accession and appraisal reports to summarize artifacts' backgrounds, physical condition, historical contexts, construction techniques and evidentiary and informational values. (4)
  • May write articles for publication in journals such as Archivaria. For example, archivists specializing in architecture may write articles to describe research which explores the influence of architectural structures on communities and societies. (4)


Money Math

  • May receive payments and make change for services purchased by users of archives and collections. (1)
  • May calculate and approve amounts for invoices. For example, they may calculate photocopying fees by multiplying the numbers of prints requested by cost per print rates and adding applicable taxes. Archivists with administrative responsibilities may calculate the fees paid to contractors such as consulting conservators by multiplying hours worked by hourly rates, adding amounts for supplies and expenses and calculating applicable taxes. (3)

Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • May create and modify schedules to ensure the timely completion of projects involving the sorting, cleaning, preserving, labelling, recording and storing of artifacts and collections. They consider time intervals, lead times, staffing and contractors' requirements when scheduling job tasks. (3)
  • May establish and monitor operating and project budgets. For example, archivists with administrative responsibilities may forecast costs for the administration, labour, capital equipment, maintenance, supplies, utilities and contractors needed to maintain archives and collections and provide related services. (3)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Take a variety of measurements using basic measuring tools. For example, photo archivists measure the sizes of photographs and the thicknesses of stacked images. (1)
  • Calculate material and resource requirements. For example, archivists with administrative responsibilities calculate the storage requirements for new artifacts by considering variables such as the quantities and sizes of required storage containers. (2)

Data Analysis Math

  • May manage small inventories of supplies. For example, they reduce inventory counts when stocked supplies such as acid free file folders are used. They calculate quantities of supplies to replace those that have been used. (2)
  • Compile data and develop statistics to describe the operations of archives and collections. For example, they compile data on the frequency of artifacts' usage by researchers and the numbers of public inquires answered and archive tours conducted. (2)

Numerical Estimation

  • May estimate numbers of artifacts in collections. For example, they may estimate numbers of photographs and records in stacks and boxes. (2)
  • Estimate times to restore artifacts and complete accession processes. They consider the physical condition of the artifacts, restoration processes to be used and times previously taken to complete similar work. (3)
  • Estimate the monetary value of artifacts such as paintings, photographs and historical records. They consider the rarity of artifacts, their evidentiary and informational values and the prices of similar artifacts. They also consider the condition of artifacts and expected restoration costs. (3)

Oral communication

  • Discuss ongoing work with co-workers and contractors. For example, they talk to workers in purchasing and shipping departments to order supplies and to locate shipments. (1)
  • Discuss prices, delivery times and other matters with suppliers. For example, they may call consulting conservators to schedule meetings and confirm costs. They may call suppliers to discuss equipment specifications and to order supplies such as acid free paper. (1)
  • May direct and instruct volunteers, helpers and other archivists. For example, they may explain hours of work, security procedures and job tasks to volunteers. They may explain archival techniques to helpers and junior archivists. (2)
  • Exchange technical information with co-workers and colleagues. For example, archivists with religious organizations may consult conservators on methods for preserving records such as papal bulls showing signs of mould. Photo archivists may consult with specialists at photographic labs on methods to restore damaged negatives and conserve glass photographic plates. (3)
  • Talk to donors about the provenance and histories of artifacts. They collect information such as artifacts' ages, origins and uses. They describe archival processes and explain that collections may be used for research and public display. They discuss copyright and legal custody agreements to ascertain their organizations' entitlements. They may seek donations to help defray accession costs. (3)
  • May negotiate with donors to acquire artifacts, collections, copyrights and donations. For example, they may negotiate with corporations to secure rights to large collections of corporate records. (3)
  • May give presentations and conduct tours. For example, they may present information about artifacts and the role of archivists to tour groups from schools. They may discuss research methodologies, archival techniques and career opportunities with university students. They may meet with heritage committees to explain detailed histories of artifacts and answer questions about the evidentiary and informational values of collections. (3)


Problem Solving

  • Receive donations of inappropriate and unwanted artifacts. Archivists compile lists of inappropriate and unwanted materials by topic and type. They publish lists of unwanted artifacts and refuse to accept listed items. (1)
  • Are unable to accommodate researchers' requests due to shortages of space and artifacts. They set priorities for research activities and consider the importance and urgency of requests. (2)
  • Discover that artifacts are deteriorating due to temperature and humidity extremes. Archivists move artifacts such as photographs to locations where temperatures and humidity levels are within acceptable ranges. They make arrangements to have faulty equipment such as dehumidifiers and air conditioning units repaired. They return displaced artifacts to their original locations once temperatures and humidities are within acceptable ranges. (3)
  • Are unable to effectively archive artifacts due to lack of resources such as space, funding and equipment. They inform their supervisors of space shortages. They seek funding from private donors, governments, foundations and their own organizations. They allocate sparse resources to artifacts with the highest evidentiary and informational values. They employ firms which have the specialty equipment needed to repair damaged artifacts such as fragmented negatives. (3)

Decision Making

  • Grant individuals and organizations access to artifacts for research purposes. They consider the mandate and policies of archives and collections, the physical condition of artifacts, the potential for damage, the purposes of proposed research and the wishes of donors. (2)
  • May choose artifacts to include in their organization's collections. For example, archivists with administrative responsibilities consider the evidentiary and informational values of artifacts, their organizations' accession mandates, ownership rights and the availability of resources such as space, funding and specialized equipment. (2)
  • Select accession processes for textual materials, pictures, maps, architectural documents, electronic materials, films and videos, sound recordings and multimedia materials. They consider industry practices, media types, budgets and the advice of experts such as conservators. (3)
  • May select contractors, consultants and suppliers. For example, photo archivists may select speciality photography laboratories to reproduce large-format images and storage facilities with appropriate climate control and security. Private records archivists may select specialists who have the expertise required to preserve badly damaged documents such as diaries. (3)

Critical Thinking

  • May assess the performance of volunteers, co-workers and contractors. They observe job performance directly and review personnel files. They gather anecdotal information from visitors, researchers, colleagues and donors. (2)
  • Judge the appropriateness of archival processes and security and safety measures. For example, archivists consider their organizations' adherence to accepted archival processes, the physical conditions of artifacts in their collections and their use of technology to improve productivity and reduce costs. Archivists with administrative responsibilities review protective measures their organizations have instituted to create safe storage environments, ensure security, prevent loss, respond to emergencies and recover from disasters. (3)
  • Evaluate the evidentiary and informational value of artifacts. They consider the roles that artifacts played in historical events and their significance to people, organizations and society at large. They also consider criteria such as the fame of artifacts' creators and their rarity, condition and notoriety. For example, architectural archivists evaluate the evidentiary and informational value of scale model structures by considering the quality of their construction, the existence of supporting materials such as architectural drawings and the popularity of the architects who created the models. (3)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Own Job Planning and Organizing

Archivists generally organize and plan their own job tasks to accomplish the work assigned by supervisors and deadlines established in work plans. They generally work on one artifact at a time, but they may be required to work on multiple projects to ensure the efficient use of labour and equipment. (2)

Planning and Organizing for Others

Archivists may plan and organize the activities of volunteers, helpers and other archivists. For example, archivists with supervisory responsibilities may direct other archivists to investigate the informational and historical value of collections and individual artifacts.

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember specific rules in privacy, copyright, cultural property, import and income tax Acts. For example, they memorize regulations governing the import of cultural property from other countries and Acts governing the issuance of charitable donation receipts for income tax purposes.
  • Remember metatag data such as titles, descriptions, and locations of artifacts within collections.
  • Remember passwords and procedures for accessing commonly-used databases.

Finding Information

  • Find information about archival processes. For example, they speak with other archivists and colleagues such as conservators to learn about special preservation and conservation processes. They locate governing principles such as 'respect des fonds' to learn how artifacts within collections are to be processed. (2)
  • Find background information on artifacts and individuals when assessing the informational and historic value of collections. They search websites, databases and catalogues operated by museums, universities and provincial and federal archives. They read bibliographies, text books and articles in newspapers, magazines and journals. They consult co-workers, supervisors and colleagues such as historians, researchers and conservators. (3)

Digital technology

  • Use word processing software. For example, they use word processing applications such as Word and WordPerfect to write letters, accession records and reports. Archivists with administrative responsibilities embed tables, budgets and drawings generated in other software programs to create funding proposals. (2)
  • Use graphics software. For example, they may use presentation software such as PowerPoint to create slide shows for tours and orientation sessions. They enter text and import graphics created in other software programs. (2)
  • Use databases. For example, they use metadata tags and other search aids to locate and retrieve information about historical figures and artifacts stored in databases. They may query databases to determine the magnitudes of collections and to generate lists. They use databases such as iRMS and DBTextworks to input data such as identification numbers, names, dimensions, biographical data, descriptions and dates. (2)
  • May use spreadsheets. For example, they may use spreadsheet applications such as Excel to organize data such as hours worked and artifacts accessed and archive users served. They may create spreadsheets to display and calculate amounts for operating and special project budgets. (2)
  • Use communication software. For example, they use e-mail software such as Outlook to exchange messages with co-workers, supervisors and colleagues and to send and receive attachments such as photographs, drawings and reports. (2)
  • Use the Internet. For example, they use browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape to access websites and download materials such as journal articles and equipment manuals. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Archivists work independently when managing, processing and cataloguing artifacts. They may coordinate job tasks with helpers, conservators, other archivists and supervisors when working on large accession projects. (2)

Continuous Learning

Archivists learn continuously to remain knowledgeable about archival processes, industry trends, new collections and regulations governing areas such as privacy, tax and the import and export of cultural properties. The majority of learning occurs through their daily activities and interactions with co-workers, colleagues and researchers. They read academic journals, Acts, articles and books to learn about industry and regulatory changes. Archivists also hone their skills and knowledge by attending provincial, national and international conferences and seminars offered by universities and professional associations. (3)