Five Basic Activities That Define the Archivist's Function

I fully agree that an archivist is a professional who is responsible for the management of important records. Atherton 1995; 43 say "the archivist serves the needs of the scholar, the historian, and posterity..." In this paper the author is going to discuss five basic activities that define an archivist's function.
An archivist according to Willipedia definition is a professional who assesses, collects, organizes, preserves, maintains control over, and provides access to information determined to have long term value. Atherton (1985; 35) say an "archivist is basically a historian". However I think a comprehensive definition of an archivist is, a person who manages non-current records of any organization.

The first duty of an archivist is acquisition of archival materials. It is the responsibility of an archivist to select and archival records fit for long term preservation. However, selection and appraisal of records are interviewed. Appraisal, is sometimes called 'evaluation' or 'selection'. In short these two duties of an archivist do happen at the same time, as the archivist do records appraisal, he/she will be selecting archival materials. The author is going to explain selection or acquisition of archival material together with records appraisal.

The first two duties of an archivist as l had explained, are to appraise and select archival material. Appraisal is 'the process of determining the value of records for further use, for whatever purpose, and the length of time for which that value will continue.'

First, appraisal involves deciding what records need to be kept and for how long in order to allow the organization to continue with its work. Second, appraisal involves deciding what records are meant permanent preservation as archives. Although it is also the purpose of appraisal to decide which records can be disposed by destruction, it is the selection of identification of records of enduring value which can be transferred to an archival institution that is of interest to an archivist.

Whilst in most cases appraisal is done in an ad-hoc manner, archivists in an operated life-cycle records management system records are appraised as they are created. Cooks{1999:6] had the following to say;

Appraisal should be performed as early as possible in the records life-cycle, informed by an in depth understanding of the functions and activities that led to the creation of the records. The aim should always be to reduce the appraisal and dispatch process to a routine whenever possible, so that it becomes part of the regular activities of the records professional and the administration.

The third duty of archivists after selection and appraisal of records is that of organization and management of archives. The archivist makes sure that the archival institution is accountable for its holdings and that proper procedure is in place for the storage of its holdings.

Archivist makes sure that the storage areas are secure. He/she ensures that no unauthorized access is allowed and that the issue of keys and passes is controlled. In addition to that, archivist ensures that accessioned materials are accessed following the laid procedures. Smoking, eating and drinking are all prohibited from storage areas since fire is a hazard to archival materials and emergency plan is always there in an archival institution.

Archivist ensures physical maintenance of the archival institution by making sure that floors, shelves, equipment are kept clean at all times. An annual stock taking is done in order to locate each record series, the number of items in each series, and to identify items that may need repairs.

The fourth duty of an archivist is that of archives description. Cox (1992;118) defines description as "the effort to establish intellectual control over archival records so that they may be effectively used by researchers". Description is usually preceded by arrangement which is the process of organizing archival records according to elemental archival principles. The concept of arrangement says records are first arranged starting from group which is the primary division in the originating organization. Below the group comes the subgroup which is usually a department of an organization followed by the series which is the level of arrangement of the files and other records of an organization or individual that brings together those relating to the same function or activity or having a common form or some other relationship arising from their creation receipt or use. Below the series come the file and the item.

Description of archival material follows the levels of arrangement. There is a description of the group, the subgroup, the series, file and item. Nancy Sahli as quoted in Cox (1992;129) says "archival description is a cornerstone activity of our profession, for without adequate user access to materials there is little sense in saving them". So description is another important duty of an archivist.

If records are not properly protected, they will deteriorate and all information stored therein lost. So it is also the duty of an archivist to preserve archives under his/her holdings. Conway (1989;47-60) gives a three part definition of archival preservation:
Archival preservation is the acquisition, organization, and distribution of resources (human, physical, monetary) to ensure adequate protection of historical and cultural information of enduring value and access for present and future generations.

Archival preservation encompasses planning and implementing policies, procedures, and processes that together prevent further deterioration or renew the usability of selected groups of materials.

Archival preservation, when most effective, requires that planning precede implementation, and that prevention activities have priority over renewal activities.

Thus archivist ensure that the records environment are good, that is, temperature, relative humidity, light, and that the storage area free from insect infestations etc, so that records are rightly protected from damage.

The last duty of an archivist l would like to describe is that of providing reference to archives under his/her custody. Archival reference ? the activities undertaken to provide information about archival records or, in some cases, from these records ? is, for archivists and their clientele, the raison deter for archival programs Miller (1989;8) says "in the final analysis it is the use of records that makes archives valuable".

To assist users in their references archivists prepares finding aids that assist users to locate relevant records in their researches. Archivists prepare series lists, indexes, archives guides, accession registers, together with descriptions explained earlier aids users in their research. A archivist is aware that archival records are preserved to be used and thus archivists will make archives available for use by his clientel.

In conclusion, the author agrees that an archivist is a professional who is responsible for the management of important records. The archivists duties in short is to locate and appraise archives, organize and manage them, he also preserves, describe, and finally facilitate the use or referencing of archival materials under his/her custody.

1. Cox, Managing Institutional Archives, Greenwood Press, London, 1992.
2. Miller, Developing a Premier National Institution. A Report from the user Community to the National Archives" Washington DC, 1989
3. Atherton, Archivaria 21 (winter 1985-86)
4. Cook, Managing Archive. A Procedures Manual, IRMT, UK, 1989

Etiwel Mutero holds a Bsc Honours Degree in Records and Archives Management from the Zimbabwe Open University.Do you want assistance in writing your college or university assignment? You can contact Etiwel Mutero on 00263773614293 or

Popular posts from this blog

Causes of Archives and Records Deterioration and Their Methods of Control

Compare and contrast Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs with Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory.