Throwing the Cat Amongst the Pigeons or Where do Archivists belong? With Librarians, Historians, Both or Neither?

It’s been interesting reading the comments and ideas that have come out of the post I did on the employment situation for archivists. The comments have been thought provoking and I was glad to see that some of them were similar to ideas that SAA has been considering for a while.

Several of these ideas related to education programs. Several suggested the need for salary guidelines. Others have suggested the need for a checklist for those considering archival education programs. And a number also recommended that we need to explore accreditation of archival education programs.

All of these are interesting ideas. Some of them are being explored as we speak. But the comments left me with a number of questions, many of which center around one topic: are archivists more aligned with librarians or with historians?

Many of the commenters pointed toward resources especially in the areas of salary surveys and accreditation issues that had been developed by ALA or other library related associations. There are still a number of fine archival training programs within schools of history but I don’t remember seeing anyone point to resources from AASLH, AHA or OAH. Is this because more archivists are coming out of library and information science programs and are being employed within libraries and are more familiar with library resources? I also wondered how an accreditation program that was being overseen by ALA would judge an archival education programs where students don’t receive an MLS or MLIS but instead receive an MA or MS in history.

I also wondered how one would develop a checklist for determining the best archival educational programming. Do schools of library and information science and schools of history educate archivists in the same way or using the same techniques? Is the perception that schools housed in MLS or MLIS programs may provide more opportunities to learn about digital issues and working with digital collections? Or schools with a history focus provide more opportunities to do in depth research or gain skills in historiography? On a related topic is it more important for students to learn about digitizing collections and working within the digital humanities or to learn the basic skills of appraisal, arrangement, description and reference?

What’s a potential archivist to do? What should SAA do? What should archival education programs do? These are not easy questions.

What do you think? Should potential archivists lean toward library science or history programs? Should they aim for programs where they get both (there are a few institutions that offer joint MLS/MLIS/MA degrees)? Should they focus on developing skills in technology and on digital humanities instead of basic archival skills? What makes a good archival education program and how should we determine a good wage for an archivist? The floor is open for comments….

19 responses to “Throwing the Cat Amongst the Pigeons or Where do Archivists belong? With Librarians, Historians, Both or Neither?

  1. There was a brief discussion of the importance of a history degree to an archivist on Twitter yesterday. So many academic disciplines use archival resources in their work nowadays. The archives isn’t just the domain of trained historians. As an undergraduate (and this was 15+ years ago at a school with a very strong archives/spec coll department), none of my history courses had an archival research component. Three English courses and one art history course, however, did. In my current position, I’m working with an English graduate-level course and a Women’s and Gender Studies undergraduate course which both have archival research assignments. This isn’t to denigrate history programs, of course. I simply think that we must recognize that a history degree isn’t the only way to gain valuable archival research experience.

    That said, I think that it would be helpful to have a list of “valuable skills” that those entering the archival profession should have (or that would be helpful for an archivist to have). These would include archival research experience as well as introductions to outreach and advocacy, digital preservation, digitization, reference, processing, etc. Regardless of where the training is housed amongst the academic disciplines, these are skills that are useful for someone who is entering the profession today. No one would be able to learn everything about or master any of these skills in a two-year program, regardless of where it’s housed. But anyone completing a two-year program with a focus on archival work (either a formal or informal focus) would find it helpful to at least be familiar with and have a basic introduction to these various areas.

    • Well said Erin! Thank you. And I’m not speaking in favor or against having archival education programs in either history or library science programs. As you stated so eloquently I just want to make sure that new archivists entering the profession have all of the skills they need to be successful.

      • I think it would be helpful if SAA created (and frequently revised) some sort of list of “key things you should be familiar with at graduation/when starting the job search” — regardless of how you get your education or training. Maybe even break it down into large categories based on work environment (maybe along the lines of the repository-type-specific sections — C&U, government, religious, etc.). Then, for example, if a person is truly interested in university archives but has never been introduced to FERPA over the course of her education/training, she’ll know to read up on it a bit before going on the job hunt! From the institution-specific list, it wouldn’t be hard to cull out a “regardless of where you want to work” list of important skills for archivists (new or not-so-new) to have.

  2. I definitely agree with Erin that there should be certain things that every archivist should know, and that they should learn these things no matter what degree their department is granted from (this is where an archives specific accreditation of grad programs is most needed, I think) . That being said, I strongly suggest to anyone going into archives that taking some graduate level work in the humanities or social sciences can be very helpful. I was in a dual degree program and received a MSIS and a MA in History, and my experience doing intensive reading and research has really helped to give me a better understanding of user’s needs in and use of the archive (not to mention the fact that the reading, writing, and analytical thinking skills I developed are also helpful). I don’t know if everyone necessarily needs a second Master’s, but some coursework might be useful.

  3. I get asked this question a lot and my answer tends to be “yes”. We tend to talk about ourselves in terms of librarians or historians but honestly, we are not really either of those things and both! When talking to little kids I tell them that I am a very special librarian, but that’s not quite right. I never represent myself as a historian, because quite frankly, I’m not. The conclusion that I have come to is to tell people I am an Archivist. I am the Custodian and Guardian of the Truth. My loyalties lie with the materials, not the researchers, the historians, or even my institution. While I may do some things that a librarian or a historian does rarely, if ever, are they doing what an archivist does.
    We are a proud bunch and we need to stop hiding behind someone elses labels because people don’t understand what we do. I consider it my duty to educate anyone who asks about the wonderful world of archives and the awesomeness that is an Archivist.
    And thank you Danna, for bringing this up. It’s a topic I talk to students about all the time and one of my favorite debates to have with librarians!

    PS. my cat thinks archivists are the best! she knows that her food will always be in the correct order. 🙂

  4. As a product of an archival Master’s program that was not affiliated with a library school (or history department, actually) , it is incredibly discouraging to see the number of job postings for archivist positions that require a MLIS from and ALA accredited institution. I sometimes feel like my degree is completely useless and I should have just gone to library school, despite the fantastic education I received. How many graduate degrees do I need to find one permanent full time job (in addition to my decade of experience)? Haven’t landed one yet. Why should someone with a library degree, but perhaps little hands-on archival experience receive preference? I don’t know what the solution is, but something needs to change.

    • I would also like to add that using ACA accreditation as a gauge could be useful, but most employers do not seem to factor this in.

  5. Oh my, this topic has been debated and discussed at length for decades especially on the Archives and Archivists Listserv. In terms of a list of expected skills that Erin desires, the Academy of Certified Archivists Role Delineation Statement may be the most complete such list:
    t’s not clear if the ACA document has been recently updated.

    I think the choice of program has a lot to do with your intended employer: If you wish to work in academia it appears most of those archival programs are hosted in university libraries, and the culture of those institutions recognizes and rewards library knowledge more readily than other types of institutions. History seems to get more traction in the government and corporate sectors. The perception of emphasis on library skills may be a result of more recent job opportunities in academia than other sectors (or it may be just me since I am employed in academia). But I want to emphasize the that historical and library-like skills are needed in all archival work and I greatly enjoy and benefit from my interactions with history and library people.

    I also suspect we may soon see archives education included in computer science and engineering curricula as the term continues to be redefined by popular media and the challenges of digital preservation become more visible to academia and the general public. However the goals of those programs may not reflect *our* understanding of archival functions. We might have an advocacy opportunity in those communities that could expand training and employment opportunities. Any archivists speaking at or attending ASIS or CNI these days?

  6. The SAA Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Education do loosely define the knowledge an archival education program should convey, and by proxy the skills an archivist should have upon graduating. Are you looking for a more specific list of skills graduating archivists should have? The guidelines were last revised in 2011 and may be a good starting point for evaluating programs.

  7. I’m particularly interested in the digital question Danna raised. I think, in general, MLS programs, in particular iSchool programs, are doing a lot more to equip students with the kinds of digital skills I see listed in all kinds of archives jobs. With that said, it’s likely a program by program situation. As an example, the applied history track in GMU’s history program has a great mixture of courses on archives, documentary editing, and a whole series of digital history courses.
    With that said, I think a bit more provocatively, the biggest leg up for future jobs in archives may well be about getting much deeper programing skills. A set of skills in say web development, that I really haven’t seen as a core part of any history or library science programs. The report on the NDSA staffing survey, Staffing for Effective Digital Preservation ( ) , has jobs like “data manager/processor” and “software developer/programmer” higher on the chart than “electronic records archivist” and “digital archivist.” That is to say, if someone is interested in archives and has chops as a web developer they would likely have a far easier time finding a job than either folks with training in history or library science.
    One of the tricks here is that I imagine a lot of folks don’t think of someone who is a software developer at an archive as not being an archivist. To which I would suggest Dan Chudnov’s recent post on why writing software is the work of librarians. ( I think his reasoning holds true for archivists too. Stated simply, as more and more of the work in archives involves wrangling digital information and tweaking and refining tools to support long term access to that information the more that skill set is going to be invaluable as a core part of doing archives work.

  8. I understand the urge to define a core set of skills as a way to support professionalism and advocate for the importance the field, but I feel like this is looking at the issue in the wrong way. From my point of view there are core concepts of what we do (make things findable, make things accessible, work towards sustainability), but there are many methods to performing those essential tasks, methods which are impacted by material types, organization type, mission, resource availability, and more. And there are hundreds of activities that are a part of performing or supporting the core tasks which don’t necessarily touch on one another or are not necessarily part of traditional archival activities like appraisal, processing, description, research support, etc. I consider myself an archivist even though I am not attached to a particular collection, my program was in neither library school nor history, and some of the most important training I’ve had and that I use every day came from 6 years of doing data analysis in the insurance industry. The skills you need depend greatly on what type of organization/collection you want to work with and what type of role you desire within providing access and care to collections.

    I think there’s a parallel to the discussion about what is an archive(s). Trying to lock that down to a narrow definition ignores the fact that collections of materials and of information exist in many different forms, and we have the opportunity to make a difference by applying our skills to those areas outside of research archives. Trying to lock down what an archivist is ignores one type of diversity in our field and leaves out a large group of people who can help drive the advocacy of the profession. We shouldn’t be constraining archivists to the archive, but should be saying archivists belong in the IT department, in the corporate office, in administrator roles, and everywhere we should be where our understanding of managing information or caring for materials meets up with our other skills or interests beyond research topics and can have an impact on how people view our profession.

  9. I think these are very interesting questions/issues, and while my situation is by no means typical, I can tell you what I am doing to navigate my way through precisely the type of situation described. Because I have been a para-professional cataloger in both public and academic library settings for the last 20+ years, but found myself at a dead end when trying to move forward professionally, I have gone back to school to get my MLIS. My interests are actually in archives and special collections, especially in the migration of materials to digital formats (when not born digital, of course). I’ve been supplementing my formal education with rare book school classes (CalRBS, actually) in the summers and hope to attend classes in EAD3, EAC-CPF, DACS, and well, a whole DAS program when I am able. Along with a personal interest in DH, and absorbing anything I can along those lines, it seems to me that these are the kind of qualifications that should be very desirable to an institution (especially a library) looking to hire a [digital] archivist or an archive looking for the knowledge and skills that a librarian/information specialist can bring to the table.

  10. The biggest thing I have noticed while reading over the comments here (and on Twitter) is that we really need to, as a profession, find a way to articulate what unites us a profession. I think that the archives field is rich precisely because people come into it from so many angles (history, IT, literature, theology, political science, etc.). Finding the things that are essential to our work (and using that to define what is essential in an archivist’s education) is surely that best way to create a strong identity that can be used to advocate for who we are and what we do?

  11. I agree with @AVPreserve that “we shouldn’t be constraining archivists to the archive, but should be saying archivists belong in the IT department, in the corporate office, in administrator roles, and everywhere … where our understanding of managing information or caring for materials meets up with our other skills or interests.” Lindsay’s suggestion that we find points of unification makes sense and brings in the core competencies that others have pointed to.

    Subject librarians do not ask themselves if they are more their subject specialty or librarian. I am an archivist because I facilitate the access and use of materials, which requires skills that vary widely based on institution or actual role; that variety is a defining characteristic of archives roles, more than subject discipline. My skills in research, from years of text and business analysis, provide me with the ability to help my patrons (faculty, staff, students, civilians – only some of which claim the title “historian”) find what they need. Is education in other subjects awesome? Yes. Does it help us help our researchers? Probably, some. Is it a placeholder for archival knowledge and experience? In most cases, no.

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  15. I’m one of those people who got her MA in history, and I work with a lot of librarians, and I do a lot of records management work, and I used to be a museum curator of 3D objects. I think there are skill and knowledge sets that span all or multiple of these disciplines, as well as particular unique skills that archivists need or use that the other disciplines don’t necessarily. It’s not black and white, which is why these conversations shouldn’t happen in a vacuum–I’ve been seeing these discussions about employment across the board in many of the professional organizations for public historians, museum staff, archivists, and librarians, and I think there can be more discussion between the groups, not just separately.

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