Archival Responsibilities

Margot Note

Margot Note

October 12, 2021

The primary responsibility of an archival repository is to gain control of its holdings to enable discovery.

Collections with legal restrictions, fragile or damaged materials, materials with high theft potential, or collections with ethical or culturally sensitive considerations require interventions by archivists and may not be accessible for users.

Three Archival Duties

Archives provide a trio of services. The first is findability. Materials should have enough physical or intellectual documentation or arrangement to provide searching, browsing, and other discovery methods. Access is second. Where rights and security allow, materials should be viewable and functional in applicable hardware and software with the quality and integrity of the original and in a manner that supports the organization’s mission and needs. The last service is sustainability. Archival materials should maintain their findability and accessibility with reliability across time, locations, platforms, systems, and changes in technology and ownership.

Five Categories of Responsibility

Irrespective of the scope of the archival institution in question, archivists have a responsibility to perform certain core duties to ensure that the archival holdings in their care are preserved and managed as authentic and reliable documentary evidence. Archivists are responsible for five major categories of responsibility.

  • Archivists adhere to an archival management framework, including identifying and respecting relevant legislation, policies, standards, and procedures and establishing the organizational and financial infrastructure to manage archival holdings effectively and appropriately.
  • Secondly, they maintain a stable physical environment for the receipt, storage, and handling of the archival holdings in the institution’s custody, regardless of the form and medium of the materials, to preserve the materials themselves or the information and evidence they contain as long as possible.
  • Archivists also acquire appropriate archival materials in keeping with the institution’s archival vision and mission and secure those acquisitions to protect the archives for the long term.
  • Archivists gain intellectual control over archival holdings to understand and communicate the nature, scope, content, and context of the materials and make those materials available for the creators or donors of the records and researchers.
  • Lastly, archivists support and foster access to (and use of) the holdings and services of the institution, in keeping with its mandate and vision and with respect for the rights of both the donors and creators of archives, sharing archival resources as widely as possible.

Essential Skills

Archivists can perform these duties because they depend on their skills and qualifications. Archivists are analytical. They decide which material should be preserved. Thus, they need to determine the importance, origin, and history of the material they work with. They are tech-savvy because they need to use databases and software programs and perform digital preservation tasks. Another vital skill is communication; they interact with internal and external users, helping them find and retrieve information. They also need to communicate with decision-makers, who might not understand all the work and resources needed to maintain a historical legacy. Archivists succeed when they are inquisitive. They need to conduct independent research for their work and suggest to others how to best research using their collections. While well-versed in history, archivists also need to be forward-thinking, with an ability to anticipate and prepare for changing uses of archived information. Lastly, archivists must be organized. They need to store records in a way that preserves them and makes them retrievable, developing logical systems for both themselves and researchers to use.

Putting It All Together

Archivists use many techniques and strategies to manage, control, and use their information assets. They work to gather, process, store, access, use, share, and preserve records of enduring value. Archivists focus on their duties, responsibilities, and skills and bring the past to the present and the future. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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