Things You Should Know About Being an Archivist

06b6087449026b7d76f735632f0232bfIn my regular life, I’m an archivist. I deal with getting historical records ready and available for researchers. And . . . a whole lot of other stuff I won’t try to explain here. I work in a manuscripts repository, not a government or corporate archives, so most of what I’m going to tell you about deals with an environment of local family history and business records.
[Right: What I think I look like when doing my job.]

1) You will have to deal with people.
I hear so many people say they want to enter the history professions because they don’t like dealing with people. Big mistake. While it is true that I do spend much of my week sitting in a quiet room, a huge part of my job is serving the public. Whether it is working in the research room, assisting off-site researchers, finding photographs for publishers, or coordinating with other institutions . . . well, there is just a lot of people work. Yes, there are archival jobs out there where you may never come in contact with the public, but in general, welcome to the service industry dude.

2) You will develop relationships with people you have never met. Probably people long deceased.
When you spend entire days working through the papers of another person, you get to know them pretty well. You start to understand how their family related to each other, how they liked to spend their days, what they were interested in, etc. When working with family papers in particular, you often come across interesting and/or humorous stories. You will probably go home and tell these stories to your loved ones. They will get bored of hearing you talk about dead people you don’t really know. It is just a hazard of the job.

2a) Sometimes while developing these relationships, you will pick up on a thread in their papers and really want to know the outcome. A lot of the time, that information is lost to history and you just have to deal with it.

3) You will likely end up with an abundance of self-taught, pseudo-IT knowledge.
A huge portion of records today are born digital (created digitally, no paper) and this number grows every single day. To be competitive, archivists must understand how to work with digital documents in an ever-changing technological world. You will probably take many online classes and do lots of reading. Make friends with an IT professional . . . fast! I spend probably 40% of my time dealing with aspects of our digital collections (and it is only a small portion of my job!). I now know my way around a CSS stylesheet – that isn’t something you learn in public history graduate school!

4) Paper is heavy.
Seriously, those boxes are like great big rocks. Watch out for interns and graduate students who see you toss them around and don’t realize the weight – save their toes (and your hard work)!

5) You will get dirty.
Erase those images of the sharply dressed archivist wearing white gloves handling a document over a clean, white table. Replace it with an image of the old-jeans wearing archivist crawling around in the hay loft of a barn rescuing long-deserted family or business records. Replace it with an image of the archivist smelling documents and books to see if they detect mold, freezing boxes to kill the infesting bugs, covered in red rot from the leather of old ledger books. . . you get the point. Yes, you will get to spend some time doing the fancy part, but unless you do something extremely specialized, it will be outweighed by the rest.

6) You will have to explain what you do over and over again.
Turns out, archivist isn’t a well-known career outside of academia. Have your elevator speech ready; you will need it a lot. If I don’t want to get into a long discussion, I usually focus on the history side of my job. People tend not to have as many questions about that. And no, I am not a librarian. I like librarians, but I am not one.

7) Parents will expect you to do their kid’s homework.
This is not cool and I do not tolerate it. Extra-friendly and new archivists can get sucked in sometimes though. You will need to figure out fairly quickly where your job ends and their work begins. You may have a person you need to go the extra-mile for, but this should not mean taking on their assignments. Also – parents who do this . . . you suck. Big time. Don’t get an attitude with me and teach your kid to put some effort in.

8) You will tease people about erasing them from the historical record when they piss you off.
Ha. Yeah, I do this. Be nice to archivists, people; we control how most of you will be remembered.



  1. You forgot the written requests, often unexpectedly, spending random hours hearing about family history projects from fellow passengers, friend’s friends, relative’s relatives and getting the same oversized estate map and enumeration/rate books out again and again and again, ad neaseum.

  2. You will have business dealings with people in various stages of grieving. Materials often become available to an archive after the death of the individual (or business) that created them and the people in charge of moving the materials into the archive usually have some emotional investment in those materials. I’ve been told so many times during the intake transaction, “I don’t want you to just put these in a box” that I’ve come to realize they usually just grieving that someone/thing they love has been actually and finally put in a box and buried. You’re not paid to be a grief counselor but acquainting yourself with what they do and how they do it is not a bad idea.

  3. This is all so true! For me, there would also have to be a 2b=Another hazard, your “crushes” tend to be people that died before you were born. And also, the “time warp” problem where you can’t remember if an event, or the way a place looks, is current, or from 50 years ago.

  4. also: Graduate students, or even undergraduates will ask you to do their research for them. And old white guys too. Just sayin’

  5. You will forever be explaining to folks that an arch-UH-vist works in arc-Ives.
    The citation os the the 1938 ( or maybe 39) SAA meeting.
    Yep, just imagine how fun THAT discussion was.

  6. The flirtation with tetanus is very real as you struggle to carefully remove the plethora of now rusting items people used to hold documents together, and paper cuts. Nothing cuts quite like 100 year old paper.

    1. Impossible to put ALL online !!! Big Fail !!! Paper exist since more than 2000 years. So do you think that government should waste time to scan all that ($$$$) ??? BIG FAIL !!!

  7. My first week on the job the nurse at the health clinic wanted to know why I thought the pin that stuck me was 123 years old….

    You can also get funny looks when you talk about the dancing lessons for Cousin Bobby Lee’s daughters. Especially when everyone else calls him “The General.”

  8. This is a fabulous list! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask to carry a Hollinger box for me, only to have them nearly drop it because it was so heavy (and people always ask what gym I belong to when they see my ‘toned’ arms…heh). I took up being a Professional Genealogist as a defense mechanism; it’s so much easier to stop people in their tracks as they start to regale me with the story of their 2nd cousin’s husband’s aunt’s 1st cousin’s connection to Charlemagne. Really people? How about studying the great stuff your grandfather or great grandfather did first? And, number 7. Yes. Yes. and Yes.

  9. Marvellous! Also: you will find things in boxes. Old things, new things, clean things, dirty things, dead things, weird things, things you’re not allowed to have for security reasons, things that should never have been kept, things that should never have been created, things that are absolutely vital. Usually what you find *in* the box, pre-processing, will bear no relation to what is written *on* the box.

    Coincidentally, that picture is exactly what I look like when doing my job, too.

  10. While I have had my “crushes” and I have also had the opposite with some papers I have worked on. I have grown to hate their papers, and them by extension, so much so that I want to have nothing to do with them. Be it read their books, go to their restaurants, etc.

  11. All I can say as a historian: thank you, thank you, humbly thank you. We are utterly at a loss to understand how you can possibly find the things you do find. Please forgive our sins as callow youth as we expected that all of the past was indexed at your fingertips.

  12. let’s not forget that we have to dress as if the polar vortex has permanently invaded our offices/archives. i can’t remember the last time i wore a cute outfit to work. for what? for the cardboard cutouts of historical people to appreciate?

  13. overall it’s a thankless job and instead of ‘thank you’ .. it’s complaints. well, least they had an archive to research now didn’t they?

  14. Reblogged this on Emmaginary Archives and commented:
    I came across this great blog post by this awesome lady named Stephanie not long ago. It inspired me to start thinking about things that I never knew would happen when I starting working as an Archivist, so watch this space for my own thoughts on what no-one told about before I decided to delve into the past.

  15. Oh yes, you can come to love or hate people long dead. And especially poignant when you read youthful enthusiasm and you know it turns out badly.

  16. Not sure if anyone will see this comment, seeing as it’s been a year since the last one, but thought I’d try anyway. I’m currently thinking about doing an MA to hopefully become an archivist. The more I read into the various specifics of what the job entails, the more it seems to fit what I think I’m after as a job. But I’m not sure, because my undergrad was in English Lit, so essays are all I know how to do right now. Did any of you nice archivist people feel like you would be rubbish at it before you started? How did you know for sure that this was the job for you?

    1. I certainly felt like I’d be rubbish! In practice I like to think I’m pretty good at it 🙂 Archivists come from many and varied backgrounds, and I think English Lit is a good one; you’ll have a head start when it comes to writing archival descriptions clearly, if nothing else. Many of us, myself included, sort of fell into archives. I’d wanted to be an archivist since my undergrad when I wrote my honours thesis using an archival document – but again, there are so many different ways to get here! If you’ve got specific questions, please feel free to email me at – it’s my personal address and therefore will be my own comments, not necessarily representing my employer. Best of luck with whichever career path you choose!

  17. This has been the most useful post! There’s hardly anything out there on proper work attire for LAM professionals. I’m an MLIS grad student, and on the first day of my first museum internship I wore a dress and heels. Such a bad idea.

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