Career as an archivist

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Lisa Butler is a general archivist at a record office. Her job is to catalogue information from a variety of sources so that it can be kept as a record for people to see in the future.

Can you describe your career as an archivist?

I spend most of my time dealing with members of the public who are requesting information that we store in data files. These archives are intended to be kept permanently, and can include books, papers, maps, plans, videos and computer generated records.

I'm also involved in selecting the records that will be stored here and cataloguing them. It's important that people know that the record office is here, what sort of records we keep and how they can use them, so I do quite a lot of promotional work.

What is involved in cataloguing?

Cataloguing is very important, because there is no point in storing information if people don't know how to find it when it is needed. Each item in the archive is given a unique reference number, which means it can be located time and time again. We use specialist software to keep the catalogue on computer. Next, the item is indexed so that researchers can access the records they need. The index will then give the record's unique reference number so it can be located in the archive.

What is your daily routine?

I spend a lot of my day answering public enquiries. People come here with all sorts of research projects. Many of them are researching their family trees, but some are interested in the wider history of their community. Some people do historical research as a hobby, others are working on a school or university project.

I talk to people about their projects, suggest the records that will be most helpful and fetch them from the store room. Often, I show people how to use particular types of records.

What kind of material is kept?

There's a huge variety. Of course we're interested in old records, but it's extremely important to collect modern ones too. Lots of records are being created today that will be used by the historians of the future. They include property deeds and valuations and records of births, marriages and deaths.

Do you do any other promotional work?

I arrange exhibitions and events. The record office has recently acquired the archives of the community, so I organised an exhibition to display some of the most interesting records. I also worked with a designer to put together a travelling exhibition of the Jewish archive.

I'm also hoping to get involved in giving talks and tours of the archive to schools, university students and community groups.

What qualities make a good archivist?

You need to be a good communicator to explain quite complex ideas to the public. Good people skills are important because you are dealing with people of all ages. A logical mind is important for tasks like cataloguing.

What hours do you work?

We want the record office to be accessible to as many people as possible, so that means staying open after people have left school or work. I work 35 hours a week on a shift pattern. Each week I do three-day shifts which are 9am-5pm and two late shifts which are from 1pm-8pm. I also work every other Saturday, taking a day off during the week to compensate.

What do you like and dislike about your career as an archivist?

I like the variety – I never know exactly what sort of work I will do each day or what records I will be looking up. However, the work can be quite tiring, because some records are bound in old, heavy volumes. Archives can be dusty, dirty places to work.

Lisa's route to her career as an archivist

  • MA in history.
  • Six months working at the Royal Bank of Scotland Archives.
  • Nine months working at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons Archives.
  • One year postgraduate course in Archives and Records Management.
  • One year contract to catalogue an archive collection held a record office.
  • Permanent post as general archivist at a record office.

Lisa's archivist tips

  • Competition for places on postgraduate courses is fierce, so get as much work experience as possible, which may involve doing voluntary work at a record office.
  • Check the Society of Archivists website (see Further Information) for details of organisations offering voluntary and paid employment.
  • Phone or write to local record offices asking if they will give you a work placement.

Archivist related jobs

Salary of an archivist

  • The recommended minimum salary for an archivist is £19,850.
  • Experienced archivists and records managers with specialist knowledge can earn from £35,000 to £60,000.

Career as an archivist

  • To become an archivist you need a degree (many subjects are accepted) and a postgraduate qualification recognised by the Society of Archivists. There are courses currently offered by: University of Wales, Aberystwyth; University College Dublin; University of Liverpool; and University College London.
  • Distance learning courses are offered by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (accredited by the Society of Archivists).

Modified: 16 June 2013

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