Employment as a Museum Archivist – Offering Opportunity and Challenges

I originally set out to examine tribal archivist positions, however I was met with seemingly very few opportunities.  The majority of tribal libraries are small, grant funded entities serving many different needs within the tribal community.  Because of the limitations that this would impose upon this assignment, I decided to focus my energies on examining museum archivist job opportunities.  Likewise, museum archives positions also offer their own set of challenges.  As the economy has been in a severe recession museums have had to lay off an enormous number of often highly skilled workers and perform essential museum duties with skeletal staff.  Museum archivists have suffered tremendously from this recession and were often laid off or forced to combine their duties with museum registrar duties as well.  Because of the state of the economy, as well as the varying sizes of museums, museum archivists must be knowledgeable in archival care and preservation, and also may need to act in other capacities such as working in a registrars role, or become knowledgeable about grant writing, or other duties.

Museum archivists operate as both an archives and a museum.  While both may seem similar, there are several differences that distinguish the two.  In short, museums and archives are both repositories for information.  Archives “manage groups of works and focus on maintaining a particular context for the overall collection, Museums collect specific objects and provide curatorial context for each of them. These distinctions … affect each institution’s acquisition policy, cataloging, preservation, and presentation to the public” (Besser, 2004).  Often times museum archives are not up to archival standards and really serve to supplement the museum’s collection.  They are often stored separate from the collection with not as much emphasis devoted to access and research.  Because of the key philosophical differences between an archive and a museum, museum archives are in a gray area of being a museum collection or an archive collection, and the archival approach often needs to be defined by the museum archivist.  Because of the differences between libraries, archives, and museums the American Library Association, the Society of American Archivists, and the American Association of Museums have formed a joint committee (the Committee on Archives, Libraries, and Museums or CALM) to gain greater cooperation and common standards. 

Interestingly the archivist positions I had found on the federal level required a Bachelor’s degree in archival science or a degree in a related field with a considerable amount of credit hours in archival studies or a combination of education and experience.  Many of the other positions that I had researched also only required a Bachelor’s degree in archival science or a related field with archival experience, but had advertised that a Master’s degree in MLIS was preferred.  Although most positions simply required a Bachelor’s degree, I see the need for museum archivist employment opportunities increasing in the future and the educational requirement also increasing especially given the fact that many museum collections manager positions currently require a Master’s degree.

Major duties included processing and cataloging collections in a wide variety of formats including differing photographic materials, papers, historic records, and museum generated materials as well.  Also, many positions had advertised a push towards digitalization of records.  With smaller and mid-level institutions, museum archivists must often define what their job duties are going to be in order to effectively develop and institute clear museum archival policies and procedures.

Museum archivists also must deal with differing archival collections within a museum.  Museums often possess institutional archives, accession records, and departmental archives.  These archives are often kept in various parts of the museum, and are also often stored on differing databases that may not be compatible with one another.  Museum archivists then must carefully consider this in constructing finding aides. 

Although the assignment was to search regionally for job listings, I was able to find several positions at the federal level, one of which was not on the east coast but in Alaska.  However, my main focus was in the Northeast from Washington D.C. to Boston.  One reason for this is perhaps that a majority of museum archivists are currently being employed in larger institutions, especially given the state of the economy.  Another reason is for smaller and mid-sized institutions, museum archivist positions are often combined with other positions, such as registrar positions.

The assignment of researching specific job opportunities I think was helpful in both narrowing the focus of archives within the SIG and also giving focus to the skill sets that are needed for this specific job type.  Being a museum archivist really serves to bridge two realms, archives and museums, and hopefully brings about a greater cooperation and understanding of the two institutions and fields.




American Library Association http://www.ala.org/offices/library/CALM/alasaaaammjointcommittee


Besser, Howard.  The Museum-Library-Archive http://www.nyu.edu/tisch/preservation/program/04spring/chin-libraries.html



Job Positions

Archivist, National Air and Space Museum



Archivist, National Park Service



Archives Technician, National Museum of American Indian, Smithsonian Institution



Project Assistant Achivist, Museum of Modern Art, NY



Sr. Archivist, Harvard University Peabody Museum



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