An archivist restoring a book.

What Is Archival Studies? Defining the Profession


Bishop Desmond Tutu once expressed that “archives are the bulwark of a free society.” But how can the preservation and maintenance of historical documents serve such a lofty purpose? The answer is layered. First, archives provide evidence that enable citizens to hold their governments accountable for past actions. When news broke in 1991 that the U.S. military exposed American troops to mustard gas in a secret experiment during World War II, investigators used archives to identify victims. Archives serve as excavation sites for those wanting to discover, understand and learn the past. The study of climate change, for example, partly relies on the examination of archival images of glaciers, which are used to raise public awareness. These invaluable services prove the importance of the work of archivists.

Individuals inspired by the power of archives to serve as witnesses of the past and repositories of a society’s rich cultural heritage should consider the benefits of earning an advanced degree in history, which can deepen the knowledge and skills needed to excel in the field of archival studies.

What Is Archival Studies?

Archival studies focus on building and curating archives that may house historical documents, photographs, diaries, rare manuscripts, analog film, sound and video recordings, among other media. This archival process requires the authentication and appraisal of materials as well as the development of a system to organize, classify, record and access materials. Besides, archival studies consider the best ways to preserve and catalog items. While different archival theories guide archivists in handling archival materials, all focus on the underlying question: What makes a document or object worthy of archiving?

Appraisal theories determine what to archive and for how long by examining a collection of items and assessing several factors. For example, archivists consider provenance or the origin of an item. They also consider the condition of items and the costs to maintain and preserve them. Archivists must verify the authenticity of materials and assess the completeness of records to determine their historical value.

Early appraisal theories at the end of the 19th century focused on archiving governmental records. Because mass duplication didn’t exist at the time, most governments kept all records. By the middle of the 20th century, this shifted as mass duplication forced archivists to reevaluate the value of a record using deeper analysis and research. The criteria included the uniqueness of a record (Could it be found elsewhere?), the form of the information on the record (Could the information be easily accessed?), and the need for the record (Did the record hold more than sentimental value?). Current approaches to appraisal consider the functions within society that warrant documentation and what records hold the greatest potential value. 

The advent of new technologies continues to shape and reshape archival methodologies. Today, electronic record-keeping systems, the digitization of archival materials, and advanced techniques in preservation make it easier to track, maintain and access records. Technology offers tools and resources that enhance the archivist’s ability to catalog records and improves the public’s ability to locate and use them. For example, ArchivesSpace, a free downloadable management system, enables archivists to create detailed records of items that the system stores in its database. Users can, then, browse a huge collection of archives previously unavailable at their fingertips.

Alongside the management of an organization’s archives, archival work involves grant writing and public education. Growing and maintaining archives requires ongoing funding. Obtaining this funding often requires researching grant opportunities and writing proposals. Also, since archives house huge repositories of information, they can serve as excellent resources to educators and students. As such, archivists must collaborate with teachers and students to provide meaningful access to archival materials and facilitate their study.

Key Skills and Outlook for Archival Studies Jobs               

Professionals in archival studies must possess specific skills fundamental to their work. For example, to assess the origin and significance of materials, archivists need strong analytical skills. Creating cataloging systems requires excellent organizational expertise. The use of technological tools and electronic databases to maintain and access records makes strong computer knowledge and technical abilities fundamental to the work of most archivists.

Today, both private and public institutions collect and archive increasing volumes of information that they want to make accessible to either the public or people within their organizations. As a result, there’s a growing need for professionals knowledgeable in archival practices and methodologies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 9% growth rate for archivists between 2018 and 2028. As institutions increasingly use electronic records, the demand for archivists skilled in data management is also likely to grow.    

How Norwich University’s Curriculum Prepares Students               

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program offers coursework designed to cultivate the knowledge and competencies to excel in a career in archival studies. Students learn to use the concepts of archival studies by studying under expert faculty in the program’s Public History track. The curriculum in this track provides concentration courses focused on the preservation and interpretation of written and visual materials and comprehensively answers the question What is archival studies? Courses include the following:

  • Introduction to Public History: covers history across the world. Students examine non-teaching career paths related to history, covering topics such as archives and records management, public parks history, museum studies, digitization, and grant writing.
  • Museum Studies: teaches the technical, ethical, and management aspects of museum work. Students study how to procure, curate, and exhibit artifacts that can provide education and enjoyment to the American audience. In addition, students learn about disaster planning, an important tool to safeguard the objects held by museums in case of an event like a flood.
  • Research and Planning Seminar: provides students with the opportunity to apply their learning in the field. In consultation with the program director, students select an institution and engage in a hands-on project specifically aligned with their interests, locations, and career goals.
  • Archival Studies: delves into the various theories and methodologies that inform the archiving and documenting processes, such as the identification, organization, and preservation of archival materials. It also covers how to make archival materials accessible to users and explores the association of archival studies with public education.
  • Capstone Project. This supervised internship program enables students to execute the plans they developed during their Research and Planning Seminar. Capstone projects are related to public history and/or archival science duties.

Learn More About Careers in Archival Studies

Those exploring the question What is archival studies? should consider the expertise needed to build a career in the field. Discover how Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History prepares graduates to preserve and maintain national treasures.


Recommended Readings

History Careers at a Glance: Exploring Museum Curator and Museum Director Jobs and Salaries
5 Benefits of a History Degree
8 Compelling Careers in History


Why Archives?, The American Archivist
What’s an Archivist?, National Archives
Master of Arts in History, Norwich University
Archival Science, New World Encyclopedia
Archival Technologies and Resources, Society of American Archivists
ArchivesSpace, Society of American Archivists
Grant Proposal Writing, Society of American Archivists
Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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