25 Becoming an Archivist

In the chapter Archives and Historical Research, we discussed why you might consult an archive, how the sources there differ from published sources, and offered some tips on where and how you would use archives in the DFW area.  In this section, we dive more deeply into what exactly archives are. Our objective here is to provide a more specialized look, which will help with more serious research projects or as a way of learning about a possible career path for history majors.


The term “archives” can have two distinct meanings, at least as far as working professional historians are concerned. First, the word can refer to an institution that collects archival records and makes them available for use. In this context, this would be institutions like the National Archives and Records Administration at the federal level, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission at the state level, and Special Collections at the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries at the local level. Each is an important archive with its own collecting focus.

The second definition of “archives” focuses on the records themselves. One of the best definitions in this context is by archivist Laura A. Millar in her book Archives Principles and Practices (2010). Millar defines archives as:

“those records, created or received by a person, a family, an organization, a business, or a government in the course of their life and work, which merit preservation because they provide enduring value: because they provide evidence of or information about either the functions, responsibilities, actions or transactions of the creator or about the life and times in which the creator conducted his or her affairs and the society in which he or she lived and worked.” (p. 3)

To better understand Millar’s definition, let’s take a closer look at two of its key components. First, the word “records.” In this context, records can refer to any piece of recorded information in any tangible format. This means a record can be on paper, in electronic form, a visual/photographic image, an oral interview, and all formats in between. Second, it doesn’t matter who or what entity created the records; it only matters that the records are kept because they have “enduring value.” This means the content of the records is important, not because of the records’ age, but for what the content tells us about the past. In short, archival records are relevant to our lives today. To drive the point home, repeat after me, “Age doesn’t make a record archival. Content does!” In other words, a record produced today can be considered archival as long as its informational content is important enough to have continuing value to our society.


Why Records Are Created

Understanding archives begins with understanding how and why records are created in the first place. As societies evolved from oral to literate, and literacy became more diffused and widespread, there were—and are—many reasons to create records and to document transactions. What follows is a discussion of some of the more important reasons that spurred individuals and societies to create records.

  • Personal. People have many personal reasons to create records and document their own lives. In the past, people documented significant life-events by photographing them, keeping personal diaries, writing letters to friends and family, maintaining scrapbooks, and literally hundreds of other ways. In today’s world, this has become even more prevalent now that cell phones, computers, and the Internet have made it possible for people to document and share all aspects of their lives using social media.
  • Social: Social records document people gathering together to pursue mutual interests. For example, social organizations can be local groups like a car club or historical society or national groups like political parties and even religious organizations. All of these groups produce membership information, record activities, document their decisions, maintain financial records, etc.
  • Economic: Economic records are the so-called “counting and accounting” records that many societies produce. Acquiring, managing, and spending money generate large quantities of recorded information. Such records are necessary in order to account for one’s own funds (not to mention funds generated or owed to businesses) as well as for money held in trust or owed others. In fact, some of the earliest records produced in the ancient world were accounting records documenting who owed who money.
  • Legal: Records can reflect legal matters. Many governments have been systematic recorders and keepers of legal information. Some governments use these records to protect constitutionally expressed rights or laws, while others may use records, like secret FBI or KGB files, to monitor and persecute certain citizens. More broadly, ownership of property, contracts between people and businesses, and the fulfilling of one’s obligations as a citizen (voting, paying taxes, serving on juries, etc.) all produce records.
  • Instructional: Some records have utilitarian purposes in that they instruct people on how to do something. Architectural drawings and blueprints, for example, show how to construct a building, while maps and navigational records facilitate travel from place to place. “How-to” videos on YouTube certainly fall into this category too, showing viewers how to accomplish or do a certain task.
  • Symbolic: Some records serve as symbols of a life experience or a notable accomplishment. Some examples of these include a marriage certificate, a diploma, family tree, a family Bible with genealogy information, certificates documenting successful completion of some sort of training, personal awards, etc.

Characteristics of Modern Records

The reasons why records are created and kept are key to thinking about both research and archives as a profession.  At first, of course, records were rare, since they were produced on stone, or papyrus, or animal skins—all expensive and hard-to-get commodities. With the invention of paper, the development of writing instruments like pens and pencils, and increasing literacy, records became more widespread and usable by more people. Also, advancing technology in the late nineteenth century and afterwards made records creation easier and more ubiquitous. Today we are inundated with both paper and electronic records (more of the latter!), and that influences what is saved in archives and how it is saved. One significant characteristic of modern records then is volume: Archives generally don’t receive a few items these days, instead they receive boxes of items or possibly even gigabytes or terabytes of electronic data or, if you are in a presidential library, both!

A second characteristic of modern records is their collective meaning. It is important to understand that when doing archival research, meaning is revealed after looking at many documents rather than just a few. Always keep in mind that context in archival records is a key to understanding their meaning. Archival documents reveal their meaning in the aggregate—oftentimes after looking at entire collections. Researchers work to uncover this information and determine how it pertains to a research topic.

A third important characteristic is that archival records have a shifting usefulness over time. Archival records were never produced to be kept and studied like books. Instead, they were originally produced in order to transact business or for any of the other reasons discussed above in the section “Why Records Are Created.” They were preserved, however, because their content tells us something important about the past. In other words, the records were originally produced for one purpose, but they have been kept for another one.


One last characteristic of modern records is that they tend to be more democratic and decentralized than in earlier periods. Today in literate societies, everyone produces records. Literacy is no longer a privilege, and technology makes documenting one’s life easy. Related to this is how modern records are produced in multiple formats, from paper, to electronic, to photographic, to analog, etc. etc!

How We Keep Archives

Archivists keep and process records and collections. Their main goal is to acquire and preserve records that archivists’ (or someone else, such as a legislative body) has judged to have archival value and make them available for use as evidence and as information. To do these twin tasks, archivists over the past two centuries have developed three basic principles in processing collections. These principles are somewhat related. The first principle is called provenance, and emphasizes the importance of respecting the individual, family, or organization that either created or collected the records. This emphasis on provenance means that archival collections are kept together based on who or what organization created or amassed them. For example, records of one creator would not be intermingled with the records of another, even if the records pertained to the same subject. These records would be kept separate from each other. The French developed the principle of provenance in the mid-nineteenth century.


The second principle is called original order, which is closely related to provenance. Original order refers to the filing system that the creator of the records used when the records were in active use and before they were considered to be archival. To respect the original order of a set of records, the archivist maintains the order in which the records were created, received, filed, or used, provided the order can be determined and that it is usable for researchers. When possible, archivists preserve original order because it cuts down on processing time (it is easier to maintain a filing system that works rather than creating an entirely new one!) and it allows users to see both the content of a collection and also the context of how the materials came to be and how the creator organized them. Prussian archivists devised the concept of original order in the late nineteenth century.


The third archival principle is called respect des fonds, and combines both provenance and original order into an overarching single principle. Developed by French archivists in the nineteenth century, respect des fonds reiterates that archives from different creators should not be intermingled and that the order in which the creators maintained records should be preserved. This element of archival administration protects the integrity of the collection as well as the content, context, and structure of collections.

The History behind U.S. Archives

These principles are important because they, in part, formed the basis of the development of archival collections in the United States. From its earliest settlement, the U.S. developed two different traditions for the handling and preservation of records, documents, and archives. Historian Richard Berner, in his book Archival Theory and Practice in the United States (1983), labels them as the Historical Manuscripts Tradition (HMT) and the Public Archives Tradition (PAT). The former was based on librarianship and autograph collecting, while the latter was based on the archival principles developed in Europe defined above. The traditions were distinct until the mid-twentieth century, when they converged.


The HMT predates the development of professional history education in the U.S. by about one hundred years. Indeed, shortly after the American Revolution, the revolutionary generation, motivated by patriotic pride and the knowledge that the revolution marked a turning point in history, began collecting documents, manuscripts, newspapers, and other historical sources that reflected the early history of the colonies and the young nation. Not only did they collect, but they collected for a purpose—that purpose being to place these collections in repositories that would house, protect, and preserve the collections for future generations. In 1791, the Massachusetts Historical Society became the first historical society in the U.S. Its purpose was to collect, preserve, and provide access to the historical sources of the state and region and to foster the study of the region’s history. Less than a century later, more than 200 state, local, and regional societies sprouted up across the country, most in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, and all were dedicated to preserving and supporting historical studies.


Some of these societies also collected state and local governmental records, but most collected private papers of individuals, such as letters, diaries, and journals. They also collected published and printed works, such as newspapers, maps, and broadsides. Some even amassed collections of artifacts and scientific specimens. Not surprisingly, these institutions reinforced the social, cultural, racial, and political attitudes of the elites who founded them.


To better protect the content of their holdings and to make them accessible to a wider audience, many of these societies started publication programs for some of their more significant collections. The Massachusetts Historical Society in 1806 stated, “There is no sure way of preserving historical records and materials, but by multiplying the copies….” Throughout the nineteenth century, the societies continued to publish major historical series of primary sources, while they continued to collect and build their holdings.


Generally speaking, the historical societies were more successful in building their collections than the efforts being made by government archives to collect public records in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The push to create public archives in the U.S. started, what Berner called, the PAT. The PAT was slow to achieve success, since the federal system in the U.S. divided governmental powers between states and the federal government, which itself was divided between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Movements to establish and fund public archives repositories had to be fought at the local, state, and federal levels, slowing progress.

Initially state archival programs achieved success before a national archives for federal records was established. States used a number of models when establishing statewide archives, including archives that were a part of state libraries (Western states in particular), archives that were a part of historical societies (Midwestern states in particular), and archives that became independent state agencies (Southern states in particular). By the first decade of the twentieth century, most states had functioning archives.


It wasn’t until 1934 that the National Archives opened its doors in Washington, D.C., and began collecting federal records of enduring value. This became a monumental task, as the nation was wracked by the Great Depression at the time and later consumed by WWII in the first half of the 1940s. Nevertheless, the National Archives eventually grew to be the leading archival repository in the nation, developing policies and procedures that impacted archival policies across the country. The National Archives also helped to shape educational programs for the training of archivists and even precipitated the founding of the Society of American Archivists in 1936, the first professional organization for archivists in the country.


When the National Archives adopted the archival principles of provenance, original order, and respect des fonds shortly after its founding, it didn’t take local, state, and regional archives long to follow suit. Today, most archival repositories in the U.S. follow the lead of the National Archives when it comes to how collections are kept, processed, and made available to researchers.

Archives as a Profession

As a history student, you may want to look at archival administration as a possible career. The archives profession is part of a growing field labeled as public history. Simply defined, public history refers to history practiced outside of the classroom in venues like archives, museums, libraries, government offices, community centers, military bases, and video production companies, as examples.


While many archivists work at collections located in libraries, not all do, and their training is quite different.  Librarians are the professional staff in libraries, and they receive their educations in university-based library schools. These schools offer masters programs (some also offer doctoral programs) that are accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), the largest professional organization for information workers in the country. Their courses focus mainly on handling published materials, with a major emphasis on the creation, maintenance, distribution, and preservation of electronic information.

Archivists, on the other hand, are the professional staff working in archival institutions, and they can come from many different backgrounds and disciplines. Unlike librarians, there is not one path to becoming an archivist. There are numerous archival educational programs housed in history departments at universities (like the one here at UT Arlington), while some are part of library schools and museology departments.

Unlike what the ALA does to accredit library graduate programs, there is no accrediting body for archival educational programs. Instead, the Academy of Certified Archivists, a professional organization for archivists, certifies individual archivists after they have worked in the field as professionals, taken a series of graduate-level archives courses, and passed a national certification exam. While the archives profession grew from the history field in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archivists now come from numerous fields, including art, religious studies, political science, librarianship, and, of course, history, just to mention a few. Archival education focuses on the selection, acquisition, arrangement and description, preservation, outreach, and providing access to archival records, both physical and electronic.

UTA’s history department offers two options to students at the MA level who want to pursue public history. One option focuses on archival education for those wanting to work in archives after graduation, while the other focuses on public history more broadly defined, with only an introduction to archives.


If you want to find out more about the archives profession and what archivists do, then access the following websites:

Bibliography and Helpful Links

There is a rich historiography relating to archives, including literature about the field’s history and evolution, its practical aspects (such as information about best practices for handling, arranging, describing, and accessing historical records), major issues that have impacted—and continue to impact— the profession, technological challenges, preservation issues, and a host of other topics.

  • For an excellent select bibliography about archives and the archival profession, see the Academy of Certified Archivists, Handbook for Archival Certification (Albany, New York: Academy of Certified Archivists, 1998, revised ed. 2019), 39-44.
  • The Society of American Archivists has published a comprehensive bibliography of U.S. archival history titled Bibliography of American Archival History (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, October 2016).


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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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