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Archivists are not librarians: Understanding the differences

Ura’s supervisor, in Pale Cocoon, asks him if archives are just lies. A very depressing anime, but also connects to a lot of archives issues.

Often in popular culture, archivists are portrayed as the same as librarians, with the worst example being Jocasta Nu in the Star Wars franchise, with other examples including Wan Shi Tong in Avatar The Last Airbender and Emily Quackfaster in DuckTales. Samantha Cross, an archivist who runs POP Archives, a website for which this blog was inspired by, has noted this confusion is present in Amphibia, The Smurfs, and Castlevania with archives being confused with libraries, and vice versa. Even the self-defined library of George and Lance in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power would tend to, as Cross points out, lean more toward something that is a museum or library than a library. Cross explained the confusion well in a April 2020 interview, saying she spends “a lot of time explaining what exactly it is I do because a lot of movies and television shows don’t understand my profession and treat it as synonymous with librarians.” That is what I am going to try and do with this post, to the best of my ability. I know this post isn’t truly about pop culture. I could care less about that because this is my blog and I’ll write what I want on it, especially since this blog will be extremely scaled back next year as archives or archivists are not really popping up in anything I am watching. As such, I have been seriously questioning whether I should even keep this blog up or just discontinue it altogether, as I really want to keep this blog.

The SAA has broached this question in the past, saying that librarians and archivists both “collect, preserve, and make accessible materials for research, but they differ significantly in the way they arrange, describe, and use the materials in their collections. Materials in archival collections are unique and often irreplaceable, whereas libraries can usually obtain new copies of worn-out or lost books.” But, there is more to the differences than this. It is possible, in today’s job environment, that someone can have a hybrid position including qualities/responsibilities of being an archivist and a librarian at the same time. As such, in this post, I’m going to go through the generalities of each profession and note their job duties, while acknowledging that responsibilities of archivist can be different from each other, depending on employers, job circumstances, etc.

An archivist can work with paper documents, photographs, maps, films, computer records, manuscripts, and letters. They can also work with financial / legal documents, recordings of public speeches, electronic records, digital records, and reports. Finally, archivists can work with minutes, registers, sound recordings, websites, research data, and data sets. [1] These are just some of the types of records archivists can work with on a day-to-day basis.

A librarian, on the other hand, mainly works with materials like CDs, DVDs, e-books, books, and other materials, usually written. The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook also describes librarians as creating and using databases with library materials, organizing library materials, helping library patrons conduct research, researching new materials and books, maintaining existing collections, and planning programs for different audiences. It is also noted that librarians teach classes about information resources, research equipment for purchase, train and supervise other library staff, and prepare library budgets.

Peridot goes through an old file system to find information about the Cluster in the Steven Universe episode “It Could’ve Been Great”

While archivists undoubtedly also create and use databases, help patrons do research, organize materials, and maintain collections, it is unlikely that a librarians would be teaching classes or researching what equipment will be purchased. In some smaller archives, it is likely that librarians would be planning programs, training and supervising other staff, and preparing budgets. One fundamental difference is that archives preserve materials which have long-term value, not just something like the latest smash hit from Hollywood that a local public library would have, that no one will likely care about in five years.

Libraries and archives have their own important functions, but they are not the same. This is clear from the skills that archivists usually have. This includes a broad (and deep) knowledge of records, special preservation and access training, passion for history, eye for detail, and strong commitment to service. Just as important is collaboration with others, using innovative methods, working independently and on a team, strong research and writing skills, and creative problem solvers. It is also said that archivists show a natural curiosity, have an in-depth knowledge of digital preservation, general understanding of cataloging, web archiving, delivery, and web site preservation, and an understanding of how different system parts contribute to the job. [2]

Librarians, on the other hand, help “people conduct research or find information” and have a wide range of responsibilities, as noted by Maryville University. The aforementioned BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook states that job duties for librarians “vary based on the type of library they work in, such as a public, school, or medical library,” adding that in small libraries, librarians are “often responsible for many or all aspects of library operations” but in large libraries they “usually focus on one aspect of the library, such as user services, technical services, or administrative services.” There are some similarities to archivists at small archives, or archives-lite, like Historical societies, rare book collections, and special collections. More specifically, there are:

  • Academic librarians
  • Administrative services librarians
  • Public librarians
  • School librarians (also called school library media specialists)
  • Special librarians (also called information professionals) and can include corporate librarians law librarians, and medical librarians
  • Technical services librarians
  • User services librarians

There are, similarly, different types of archivists, whether those who work in colleges and universities, corporations, governments, historical societies, museums, religious institutions, and special collections. [3] However, librarians can said to be much more public-facing than archivists, but this is sometimes not the case, with archivists dealing with the public as much as librarians, especially if they work at a small institution or their archive is within a library.

On the left, a trading card of Nu from the Star Wars Trading Game. On the right, Nu calls herself an archivist in the comic Star Wars: Darth Vader no. 9.

There are many important duties of an archivist, including preserving and providing access to original materials, involvement with records life cycle phases, records selection (i.e. archival appraisal), and arranging (then describing) collections of records. Archivists also work to protect records from theft and physical damage and work to ensure that digital records will be available when needed in the future. Of these duties, librarians also select their materials, try to protect them from physical damage and theft, and describe the materials. [4] However, the records that librarians work with on a day to day basis is nothing like those which archivists work with, and there are different systems of organization and arrangement. This is why it is always a problem when a librarian has control of an archives and claims they have the “right” way of organizing the records, inevitable messing it up for all those to follow, resulting in an archivist having to fix it later.

These are not, of course, the only duties of an archivist. In fact, there are efforts by archivists to identify essential evidence of society, ensuring its availability for use, plan and direct publications, exhibitions, and outreach programs, make records accessible for use and assist patrons in locating information. Archivists are also concerned with records which have been deemed important enough to be kept for an extended period of time and sometimes are in charge of the archive itself. Managing records, along with transparency, ensuring the survival of provenance, keeping original order, and creating a coherent collection through well-informed and pro-active selection and collecting, are a vital part of being an archivist too. [5]

Librarians, on the other hand, can represent the library, providing patrons help with audiovisual and technology matters, engaging in reference services, assists other staff, develops grants, and selects (and maintains) audiovisual collections. Such librarians may also have strong computer, communication, and organizational skills, and enjoys learning. [6] While some of these skills, like maintaining collections, organization, assisting staff, and various skills, would be helpful in an archival environment, there are other important skills which can’t be gained by working in a library, where you are shelving and organizing books, DVDs, and CDs, for instance.

Anna’s manipulation of the archivist begins in My Dictator Boyfriend

This includes effective collection management, archival appraisal, acquisition, arrangement, description, outreach, and reference. It is also about ensuring physical and intellectual control of records that have enduring value, occasionally directing workers to help arrange, exhibit, and maintain collections, and creating (and managing) a system to maintain and preserve electronic records. [7] While a librarian does some of this, when it comes to organizing library collections, outreach, and reference, preserving records is not a major part of many libraries, as they are more public-facing and are concerned with day-to-day operations even more than archives. This is especially the case with public libraries, which probably won’t have programs for long-term preservation of records, but only to retain records for long enough for certain operations. However, libraries with special collections, rare books, or other archivy elements may focus more on long-term preservation. It is something which is not much of a concern for public librarians, to be perfectly honest, unless such librarians are interested in it for other reasons apart from their work. I say with certainty because when I worked at a local library before I began grad school, there were no efforts to preserve records for long periods of time, just enough for the library catalog and patron records to function.

There are number of other duties archivists have, such as records management, digitization, public outreach, writing, teaching, looking after collections, and, again, involvement in the life cycle of an archival record. Just as important as classifying, analyzing, describing, or organizing records, is the fact that judgment of archivists will determine how the future views the past. Archivists may also experiment with Web 2.0 technologies to describe which can best meet the needs of archivists and patrons. [8]

Clearly, there are similarities between librarians and archivists when it comes to outreach, dealing with patrons, organizing materials, and describing collections, but there are so many differences between the two professions. Part of the problem is that the two disciplines are smashed together as part of MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science) programs, with very few programs specifically about archives, leading these programs to be called “library programs” or the schools that host them “library schools.” Perhaps the SAA should accredit their own programs instead. Or maybe the SAA can come to an agreement with the ALA where both can work together to accredit programs, rather than the ALA to be in charge of accrediting programs, when it should really be a collaboration between both organizations if this is deemed to be necessary. Otherwise, the confusion between the two professions will cause problems with perceptions not only of archivists, but also of librarians, causing problems for those in both professions.

If you still think, after reading this post, that archivists and librarians are the same, then you truly are a dullard. The differences between them should be acknowledged and hopefully this post will help dispel some who believe the two are the same.

© 2022 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.


Notes

[1] For this paragraph, see “What’s an Archivist?” on the NARA website, “What are archives” from the University of Nottingham, “What are archives?” page from the SAA, “What are archives?” page from the UK National Archives, “What Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers Do” section of the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, and “What are Archives?” page from Archives Hub are where I got this information.

[2] For this paragraph, see “What’s an Archivist?” on the NARA website, “Who is an archivist?” on the International Council of Archives (ICA) website, “Archivist vs. Librarian: Which Career Path Is for You?” from Maryville University, Jennifer Wright’s “Some Archival Career Advice” post, and Peter Chan’s “What Does it Take to Be a Well-rounded Digital Archivist?” post.

[3] See “Types of Archives” page on the SAA website.

[4] For these two sentences, see “What’s an Archivist?” on the NARA website, “What are archives?” page from the SAA, and “What Are Archives and How Do They Differ from Libraries?” page from the SAA.

[5] See “What are archives?” page from the SAA, “What are archives” from the University of Nottingham, and “What are Archives?” page from the National Museum of American History, Bob Clark saying that “our job as archivists is to be transparent & to make information accessible to the public. NARA is dedicated to the proposition of govt transparency through record-keeping & historical inquiry. There should be no archival issue that is too arcane for the public to understand,”  and the ICA page entitled “Who is an archivist?

[6] This is pulling from some of the job description for the “Head of Technology and Patron Services (Full-time Librarian)” position on the ALA website.

[7] See the ICA page entitled “Who is an archivist?“, “so, what exactly does an archivist do?” from anthroarchivist, and “What Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers Do” section of the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook.

[8] See Jennifer Wright’s “Some Archival Career Advice” post, Peter Chan’s “What Does it Take to Be a Well-rounded Digital Archivist?” post, Erica Siegrist’s “Records Managers vs. Archivists – What’s the Difference?” post, Samantha Thompson’s “What do archivists keep (or not)?” post, the “Historians in Archives” page on American Historical Association website, and J. Gordon Daines III and Cory L. Nimer’s “Web 2.0 and Archives” article.


Update

There has been a lot of chatter about this post on Reddit, especially on /r/Archivists, where it was posted. Some pointed to the fact that every archivist job ad says that “this position requires a master’s degree in library science,” while others said that agonizing over it is not “particularly helpful,” and argued against the point that there should be different degrees for librarians and archivists, declaring they are an archivist, librarian, and historian, saying “none of these are exclusive to one another.” However, it was also acknowledged that the distinction could be “particularly useful” when it comes to the public knowing what they when they need to visit an archives rather than a library. They also claimed that the article wasn’t “convincing,” noting the “fluid definitions and caveats” and claiming the article is “only of interest to people in archives,” declaring it “matters when you’re part of the workflow, but not much to people interested in the final product” and complaining about archivists wanting to say they aren’t librarians. More helpful comments were those who said that “archivist is used as a kinda prestige term in media—particularly speculative fiction,” with those characters not really doing archival work. Others noted their position as an archivist/librarian. I never intended this post to be comprehensive or to cover what every single archivist out there does, but to differentiate, in general terms, between archivists and librarians. In that, I acknowledge, as one comment on this post pointed out, that “archivists can and do work with literally any type of artifact out there” not just document/media based items. Another point of this post was to give more of a basis so when I want to analyze characters to see if they are librarians (or archivists), I can do that with more certainty, having a definition to base my analysis on.

By histhermann

Marylander with MLIS who loves archives, libraries, genealogy, reviewing pop culture, and writing fictional stories. UMD '19 & SMCM '16 grad. I've been running various WordPress blogs for a while now, about genealogy, libraries, archives, and more.

4 replies on “Archivists are not librarians: Understanding the differences”

I think it’s important to point out that archivists can and do work with literally any type of artifact out there. Not just more document/media based items like you listed.

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You are completely right. I never meant for the items I mentioned there to be comprehensive of all that archivists can work with. Archivists can definitely, and do, work with any artifact out there, as there are many archivists out there, not all of whom do the same thing.

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