Research Careers of the Archivists and Curators

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Archivists and curators have been engaged with research throughout their entire career. They contribute to the study of art and science by analyzing objects form historical documents and ancient artifacts. They look at things like living plants and animals and determine which are significant enough to be preserved for posterity.

Archivists keep track of records such as letters, contracts, photographs, and blueprints, while Curators manage collections in museums and other exhibiting institutions. Although people have collected documents and objects for centuries, archivists and curators have established themselves as professionals only in last hundred years or so. The first museum was built in Egypt in the fourth century B.C. and ever since then societies have attempted to understand their own and other cultures by assembling objects of aesthetic, historical, or scientific vale. Museums accumulated objects rapidly and sometimes indiscriminately, accepting items regardless of their actual merit. By the eighteenth century, museums were holding so many items that they had to formulate acquisition policies to keep from becoming community attics full of possibly useless articles. The idea of arranging collections in a systematic order was pioneered by the renowned Louvere museum in France when it opened in 1793.

Each year new scientific discoveries are made and new works are published. The need for sifting through and classifying items grows greater each year as Archivists and curators have emerged as the individuals who, because of their education can best determine the value of collections, and help the general public understand and appreciate them. Like librarians, they know exactly where items are kept, whether within their own collections or in those of others. Like historians they can explain the significance of such items in the development of civilization.

With their research careers, archivists analyze documents, such as government records, minutes of corporate board meetings, letters from famous persons, and charters of nonprofit foundations. To determine which ones should be saved, they consider such factors as when each was written, who wrote it, and for whom it was written. Then, archivists appraise documents based on their knowledge of political, economic, military, and social history. After selecting appropriate documents, archivists help make them accessible to others by preparing reference aids such as indexes, guides, bibliographies, descriptions, and microfilmed copies of documents. For easy retrieval, they file and cross-index selected documents in alphabetical and chronological order.

In their research job, many archivists conduct research using the archival materials at their disposal, and they may publish articles detailing their findings. They often times advise government agencies, scholars, journalists, and others conducting research by supplying available materials and information. Curators supervise collections in exhibiting institutions such as museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, and historic sites. To improve their employers educational and research facilities, curators sift through items acquired through donations and bequests and select those of value to the institution. They may obtain and develop new collections by negotiating loans, purchases, and exchanges, and sometimes by gathering in the field. They maintain inventories of possessions and may design exhibits.

Depending on the size of their employing organization, part of its research employment curators may perform many or few administrative duties. Such duties may include preparing budgets, representing their institutions at scientific or association conferences, soliciting support for institutions, and interviewing and hiring personnel. Some curators help formulate and interpret institutional policy, they may plan or participate in special research projects and write articles for scientific journals. Archivists usually must have at least a master’s degree in history or a related field. For some positions, a second master’s degree in library science or a doctorate degree is prerequisite. Candidates with bachelor’s degrees may serve as assistants while they complete their formal training. Curators must have at the very minimum a bachelor’s degree accompanied by museum experience. The bachelor’s degree should be in a discipline related to the museum’s specialty. Many museums also require a master’s degree and most prefer a doctorate. Curators often need to be knowledgeable in a number of fields because so many sciences overlap.

Archivists and curators employed by the government may have to take a civil service examination. Those working for smaller institutions should have good people skills because they often have administrative duties in addition to their scholarly activities and researcher jobs. Generally, students interested in archival work should study history and literature and try to get part-time jobs in libraries to gain more experience. A fun extra-credit project could be to construct a “family archive,’ consisting of letters, birth, and marriage certificates, special awards, and any other documents that would help someone understand a family’s history.

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