Home / People / What is an Archivist?

What is an Archivist?


By Ashley McLendon, Lead Processing Archivist, Naval History and Heritage Command

“I’m an Archivist.” Every Archivist I know has received blank stares after making this statement. Archivists have grown accustomed to this look and will generally wait until cartoon question marks float above the head of the inquisitor as more familiar, similar-sounding professions are explored: “Archaeologist?” “Activist?” “Anarchist?!” But, more often than not the Archivist will launch in to their well-rehearsed speech, which normally includes a reference to the ‘National Treasure’ movie.

To Archivists it is bewildering that individuals have no concept of what we do. I, for one, have been archivist-like ever since I was 8 years old when I collected TV Guides (I was certain that a person in the future would want to know what was on at 8:00 p.m. on April 23, 1988 or who was on the cover) (Tony Danza). The idea of losing or not being able to access information makes us nervous and itchy.

The role of the Archivist is undeniably important. Without the attention, preservation, and access afforded to records by Archivists, information could not be retrieved for historical research, scientific trends, medical claims, legal arguments, or to access the primary record of our lives.

Archivists are professionals who collect, organize (“arrange”), describe and make accessible informational documents. We are similar to museum curators, except our materials are two-dimensional; we are similar to librarians, except Archivists organize and describe materials on a collection level instead of per item (e.g. single book) level. Archivists maintain a variety of documents to include paper (textual) documents, photographs, microfilm/microfiche, electronic files, and audio/visual media. The documents collected may be generated by a variety of institutions to include schools, government institutions, hospitals, private individuals, universities and corporations and they may range in age from the ancient to the newly-created.

A day in the life of an Archivist may involve a variety of tasks. Our job is rarely stationary and is surprisingly physical. We may move boxes or pallets of records thanks to new arrivals, record disposal (more on this later), or because it has been discovered that records require better physical conditions. Throughout the course of a day we may arrange and “rehouse” records in to archival, acid-free folders and boxes.  We may also describe collections and generate finding aids, which are documents that serve as a summary and guide to the collection that aid access. Additionally, a variety of researchers on and off site often request information from archives on a daily basis and information must be located and granted (or denied) to requesters.

People are often shocked to learn about the particularities of the archival profession. We do not eat snacks while working with records because we do not want to get food residue on the documents or attract pests. We always use pencil around documents to reduce the possibility of making permanent marks on paper. We roll our eyes when we see that someone from the past has placed tape on a document or had the audacity to use a paper clip; we forget what it was like to be a non-Archivist. We may suffer from paper cuts, back injuries from lifting boxes or eye strain from years of trying to read reading fuzzy microfilm. We do not only lovingly maintain documents but also relish in the destruction of records that have been deemed temporary according to our sacred text, the record schedule. At other times we may not even accept otherwise fascinating documents because they do not fit within our collection policy.

We are rule followers and we are dedicated to the protection of documents in tandem with access to information, as appropriate. Sometimes access to information cannot be offered because of restrictions under the Freedom of Information Act, due to classification levels or because we need to protect people’s personal privacy.

Therefore, the next time you review your own filing cabinet at home to decide what to keep, what to shred and what to re-organize, give a little thought to us Archivists; you might even come to realize that you are a bit of an Archivist, too.

Learn more about the Naval History and Heritage Command archives here: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/archives.html