Course:1: Archives and Archivists
Lesson:Lesson Five: What Is an Archivist?
Topic:An Archivist's Responsibilities


An Archivist's Responsibilities

While the focus of all archivists is to develop and maintain physical and intellectual control over historical records, an archivist may wear many hats, may focus on one specific area of the archives field, or may even focus on one specific collection or kind of collection. 

So, you may wonder, what does an archivist do?


Archivists select records. This process requires an understanding of:

  • The historical context in which the records were created
  • The uses for which they were intended
  • Their relationships to other sources

During this selection process, archivists distinguish between records and historical records and identify the historical records that should be maintained by the archives.

Archivists refer to this process as appraisal, which we defined in Lesson 2.

Removing records from basement storage
Removing records from basement storage.

Puzzle icon

Click here to play a version of "Hangman" which will test your knowledge of archival terminology. (You might want to peek at the definitions on the next page before playing!)


Arrangement and Description

An archivist organizes and describes historical records. This is accomplished by arranging them in a logical order, protecting their condition, and describing them so users can find what they are looking for. Archivists call these functions arrangement and description.


An archivist helps users locate the records they need and helps them use the records. Archivists refer to these services as reference.


An archivist promotes the historical records collections to increase awareness and the usefulness of the archives. Archivists refer to this as outreach.


An archivist ensures the safety and security of the records at all times, while encouraging them to be accessible for research and educational purposes. Archivists call this preservation.

Other Activities

Most importantly, archivists are familiar with professional standards and practices and follow these in all aspects of their work. 

Definition icon

Arrangement and Description
The process of organizing archival records according to accepted archival principles and recording information about archival collections in a standardized format.

Activities that help users locate and properly use the records they need.

Promoting the historical records collections to increase awareness and the usefulness of the archives.

Practices and procedures to ensure the safety and security of historical records at all times.