archive room

Are Archivists also Librarians?

Are archivists also librarians? For me it’s an easy answer: yes. I consider myself an archivist as well as a librarian. Mapping it out logically, I believe archivists are librarians, but not all librarians are archivists, making archivists a specialized type of librarian. However this perspective, as I learned recently, is not shared by everyone.

During a recent job interview at an institution that shall remain nameless, I was presenting to a group of library staff and faculty members on the role of special collections in an academic environment. When responding to a question about the archivist’s role over the narrative of archival materials, I was challenged by one of the attendees when I claimed that archivists, also being librarians, have a professional obligation to acquire, preserve, and provide access to all materials (within the confines of the collection’s and institution’s access policies), no matter how the individual archivist views the materials.

When I mentioned that archivists are also librarians, the attendee, who it turns out is also an archivist, asked half-sardonically “Are we?” It was clear he did not agree with me on this point. I thought about it on the fly but doubled down. “Yes, I think we are,” I said. I mentioned that archivists certainly have more specialized responsibilities than many librarians, such as dealing with preservation issues. But ultimately, archivists are also librarians and we are still professionally obligated to, among other things, ensure access to materials that we may or may not agree with (again, within the confines of the collection’s and institution’s access policies), be they popular fiction, academic journals, or manuscripts. Even the Society of American Archivists notes the overlapping responsibilities of the librarian and the archivist:

“The librarian and the archivist, for example, both collect, preserve, and make accessible materials for research; but significant differences exist in the way these materials are arranged, described, and used.”

— Society of American Archivists, “An Overview of the Archives Profession,”, accessed November 7, 2011.

When I elaborated on this point, the archivist in attendance raised his eyebrows showing that he still did not agree with me, but he didn’t press it any further.

It was a challenging yet rewarding presentation and I was definitely honored to discuss the role of special collections in an academic environment to this group. However I’ve been thinking a lot about this person’s perspective since then and I wanted to do a little informal survey to see what my archivist friends and colleagues think about this issue.

Do you archivists out there also consider yourself, to some degree, librarians? Why or why not? I’m interested to read your perspectives. Feel free to leave comments and feedback on this site or on my Facebook and/or G+ pages.


1 Comment

  • Helen November 30, 2011 Reply

    Hi Chris,

    Came across your blog from Facebook. Sounds like you definitely had a challenging interview! I don’t see how anyone can disagree with an archivist’s responsibility to “acquire, preserve, and provide access to all materials.” Surely that is EXACTLY what an archivist does? If not that, then what?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *