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Four Things for Archivists to Know in the Digital World

Four Things for Archivists to Know in the Digital World

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Joanna HughesAug 14, 2018

When we hear the word 'archives,' thoughts of dark rooms filled with dusty papers from ancient times may first come to mind. However, the fact is that archives are very relevant to the modern world -- and so are those who maintain them. Thinking about becoming an archivist yourself? If so, here are four things to keep in mind about working as an archivist in today's digital landscape.

1. Being an archivist involves many skills.

Typically, archivists have degrees in either library science or archival science. However, degrees or specializations in history, art, science, political science and public administration can also lead to archivist careers.

“An archivist's primary responsibility is determining which records are of value. This requires a great deal of understanding of the historical context of the records in question as the historical context reveals the record's relationship to other records, the intended use of the record, and the record creator's underlying motivations. Once a record is determined to be sufficiently valuable to preserve, archivists must describe and arrange the record in such a way that the institution's intended audience is able to access the information and make sense of it. In order to successfully accomplish these tasks, one who works with archives must employ strong organizational techniques and sound management skills,” careers website Sokanu.

Other skills are also important. According to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, “The research and writing skills gained through history, English, and other liberal arts classes are helpful. A second language can also be useful in a setting where non-English documents are found in collections. Archival collections can deal with any topic though, so there is no way to tell which subjects may be useful later.”

2. Technology and digitalization are part of the deal.

While many people may think of books when they think of the primary domain of the archivist, the world has changed immensely. The takeaway? In addition to working with hard copies of materials, digital materials increasingly go with the territory.

“You have to love using technology to help provide access to that cool old stuff," archiving site ArchivesNext explains. "To any wannabe archivists reading this post, it’s great if you love the ‘old stuff.’ Really, it is. But understand that a big part of your job – probably most of it, in many cases – will be interacting with people and using technology. So be prepared for that too, and I’d advise you to embrace those aspects of your future.”

“It is simply no good to see this profession as in any way apart from technology. I would say that technology is more central to being an archivist than to many professions, because we *deal in information*....How can you be someone who works professionally with information, and not be prepared to embrace the information environment? The web, email, social networks, databases: these are what we need to use to do our jobs. We generally have limited resources, and technology can both help us make the most of the resources we have and, conversely, we may need to make informed choices about the technology we use and what sort of impact it will have,” adds Jane Stevenson for the Archives Hub.

But digital records present unique challenges. The National Archives’ Hilary Parkinson speaks of the challenge of sheer logistics — the physics involved just in transferring digital content in an appropriate amount of time. She adds that the need to capture the data and preserve it forever requires archivists to work out how to ingest (or transform appropriately before ingest) a wide range of formats used by the records creators.

3. Ensuring accessibility is imperative.

What good are archives if the material they contain cannot be accessed or understood by future generations? This, too, comes with new challenges in the digital age.

“Search and accessibility challenge us as well. Traditional searches of electronic records will return a word or phrase with 100% reliability, which can be useful at times. But when you must search common words across a large body of records, say the approximately 200 million emails NARA [America's National Archives and Records Administration] received from the George W. Bush administration, finding needed documents can become daunting,” continues Parkinson.

Regulating access is also a part of the job that’s changed in the digital age. Daniel Linke, a university archivist, says, “Electronic records are so easily shared, but you want to be able to share things according to various parameters.”

4. Jobs are everywhere -- many with collaborative potential.

While archivists are also found in museums, historical societies and universities, they work in many other environments. Creative Choices, which provides support for creative careers, says, “As an archivist, you could work for almost any organization including central and local government record offices, businesses, charities and religious bodies.”

And while archivists for smaller entities may work independently, those employed by larger institutions may work as part of a team of other archivists and historians.

While the profession may often be perceived as very technical and bookish, there is a certain romance to the job, as it can help people find records detailing interesting stories and information from years gone by, often with much sentimental appeal.

“Archives can capture these lives, stories, and what people meant to others, and preserve them long after memory has faded. That is surely the most important legacy they can provide, and it is one which makes them truly priceless,” says Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist at the Wiltson & Swindon History Centre.

If you’d like to add your talents to this effort -- and if you’re willing to embrace the opportunities and obstacles that go along with archival work in the digital age -- a career as an archivist may be your future.

You can find PhD courses in archival science here.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.