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Using Archives In Your Research: Careers and Voluntering with Archives

Archives and Museums Careers

Volunteers working at London Metropolitan Archives

What does an archivist do?

Working with archives is a varied job and the exact nature of the role will depend on where you work. An archivist working in a large archive such as The National Archives is likely to have a specific role or specialism; whereas an archivist who manages an archive on their own will have to do a bit of everything.

Generally, archivists will do some or all of the following:

  • Collections management activities:
    • Liaising with donors and accepting new material for the collections
    • Sorting and cataloguing archive records
    • Posting catalogues online with indexing
    • Packaging and boxing archive materials
    • Appraisal and disposal of unwanted items
    • Keeping paperwork associated with these activities
  • Collections access activities:
    • Liaising with researchers and visitors
    • Answering enquiries
    • Conducting research
    • Keeping statistics of visitors and enquiries
    • Carrying out reprographics orders
  • Outreach activities such as
    • Giving talks and tours
    • Preparing exhibitions
    • Writing collections guides
    • Running social media accounts
  • Collections care activities
    • Maintaining the cleanliness of the storage areas
    • Ensuring effective use of space
    • Monitoring for pests
    • Liaising with conservators to repair items
  • Management level activities
    • Overseeing specific projects
    • Management of volunteers and interns
    • Preparation of policies and procedures
    • Management of budgets

How do I become an archivist?

You will usually need a good first degree. This does not have to be in history. Classics, history of art and English literature are common first degrees, but even science degrees are no barrier to a career in archives. It is more important to demonstrate that you have a passion for history and heritage.

Look for volunteering opportunities. This will not only give you a good idea of whether you will actually enjoy the work but is also essential before you begin one of the postgraduate courses. Many archives will welcome keen volunteers, although they may have restrictions on how many they can take or what project you will be able to work on. There are some internship schemes available too. It is also worth looking for Archives Assistant jobs advertised. Archives assistant roles are usually taken by people who have not yet done the postgraduate course, as an entry level position. They usually get to do a little bit of everything around the archive to prepare them for their future career. Some contracts run from September to September so that the assistant can then enrol on one of the postgraduate courses.


Good places to look for job and placement adverts are the ARCHIVES-NRA Listserv (an internet discussion forum for archivists) and the Archives and Records Association, which holds a list of available trainee placements. It is possible to become an associate or student member of the Archives and Records Association and thus receive their ARC Recruitment sheet (among other benefits).

The next step is to apply for one of the postgraduate courses in the subject. These are currently available from:

  • Aberystwyth University
  • Northumbria University
  • University College Dublin
  • University of Dundee
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Liverpool
  • University College London

It is possible to complete a Postgraduate Diploma or a full Masters degree, both will allow progression within the field. The difference is completing a dissertation, which is not needed for the Diploma.

It is worth noting that competition is stiff within this sector, both to get onto one of the courses and for jobs once completed.

Other jobs in the field

The roles of Records Manager, Information Manager or Knowledge Manager are ones that experience in archives can prepare you for. These roles involve managing the active business records of an organisation so that staff can always access accurate information, and to ensure legislative compliance. Most of the postgraduate courses on archives management include sections on records management and electronic records management as the two roles are often combined.

Conservationists are responsible for the repair of damaged archival documents. Some larger archives have in-house conservation studios while others outsource work to freelancers. Conservation work also takes place in galleries, museums and stately homes.

Museum and gallery curators care for heritage objects: cataloguing them, curating them in exhibitions and educating people about them. As with archives the role can be highly varied if you work in a small exhibition space with few staff, or highly specialised in a larger institution.

Career Case Studies

Katharine Short, DMU Archivist

Growing up I always knew I wanted to work in heritage, although at first I leaned more towards archaeology, and then the world of art curatorship as I studied for a BA and then MA in History of Art. It was while studying for the MA that I took on a small role as a Research Assistant which required me to analyse nineteenth-century archival material. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to write my dissertation on that topic, although it had nothing to do with the Italian Renaissance course I was on! My tutors suggested that I consider a career in archives.

I was very fortunate that a few months later I secured a job as Archives Assistant at King’s College London Archives. This was an excellent grounding in every aspect of archival work: answering complex enquiries, helping researchers, preparing catalogues, putting together exhibitions, handling conservation problems and working the digital scanner!  I decided to take the postgraduate course in Archives Administration by distance learning from the University of Aberystwyth. This suited me as I could remain in employment while studying, allowing me to combine the theory in my course books with the hands on practical experience of the job. I remained at King’s for just over two years while studying, then looked for post-qualification jobs, the next step up the rung. I gained a position at London Metropolitan Archives working in the Acquisitions and Cataloguing Team. The role was primarily to catalogue collections of archive material, some of which were very complex. I also conducted research, gave talks, supervised interns, liaised with donors and conducted large scale appraisal projects.

When my husband and I decided to move out of London I looked for jobs in the Midlands. I wanted more of a challenge so was thrilled to secure the role at DMU. I am the only archivist and the archive itself is a relatively new venture which has been very exciting as I can develop it in new directions. I truly love my job – there is nothing quite like the thrill of finding a beautifully preserved document and sharing it with the world.

Elizabeth Wheelband, Heritage Centre Co-ordinator

Whilst studying Fashion Merchandising and Buying at Kent State University I took a mandatory course about the history of costume which changed my entire career path. My interest in fashion developed from modern couture to historic dress and from that point onwards I was determined to pursue a career in museums and heritage. I completed my MA in Victorian Studies at the University of Leicester where I focused on women’s costume in Victorian theatre and began volunteering with Leicestershire County Council’s historic costume collection. Volunteering led to several job opportunities within LCC, where I have worked for the last four years, including as Collections Access Assistant for the Museum Service and Project Officer for the community engagement project, A Century of Stories.

I am thrilled to be the newest member of the Arts & Heritage Team here at DMU and love the diversity my role offers from day to day; from researching and creating a programme of exhibitions, giving talks and tours, liaising with staff, students and alumni to establishing a network of volunteers. I thoroughly enjoy what I do and hope to continue developing the excellent work DMU has done to spark an interest in heritage.