Archival Education: The Varied Landscape

Over the last six months, I’ve taken two archives courses at institutions outside of my home school through the WISE consortiumArchival Appraisal, Arrangement, and Access and Encoded Archival Description (EAD). My home institution does not offer most of its archives courses online, so I’ve had to work pretty hard to organize my own individualized program of study in archives. In taking courses in the same area of study at different schools and researching what’s offered at different schools, I’ve started to get a feel for the way the subject is being taught across the country. What I’ve noticed is a lack of uniformity in archives curriculum.

Why is this a problem? For one thing, it makes it difficult for budding archivists to evaluate and choose a school to begin with. If schools are creating a “core curriculum” for archival studies with completely different courses and giving them completely different titles, it’s hard to compare and assess programs. A lack of uniformity also makes it harder for current archives/library school students to choose courses and be confident in their education. Even if you’ve committed to an archives concentration, more than likely, you’re not going to have time to take every single applicable course. Most of us are doing our archival studies under the umbrella of a Master’s in Library and Information Science, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. If X College requires a course in preservation as part of its core, but Z University requires arrangement and description and makes preservation optional – how do you know with certainty what you really need to learn and what you should prioritize? Many students will follow whatever curriculum their school or advisor recommends, but within the bigger picture of archival education and practice, the differences matter. They highlight the inadequacies and lack of clear standards in archival education across the United States.

Perhaps at least part of the reason for our lack of consensus is that there is quite a bit of variance in the level and type of education and experience people come to the archival profession with in the first place. I know archivists who don’t have information science degrees or even graduate degrees. I think this variance is a great thing. It shows how much our profession is grounded in fieldwork, something I hear reiterated by archivists all the time. The issue is that this isn’t adequately reflected in job postings. The MLIS still reigns supreme, and you’ll be hard pressed to find more than a handful of postings at any given time that don’t require or strongly prefer a graduate degree of some kind.

Going forward, I’d like to see one of two things happen – either a move towards an apprenticeship model of archival education or the Society of American Archivists taking a more active role in archival education. SAA is already doing this to an extent through their Digital Archives Specialist and Arrangement and Description certificate programs. They even point to the inadequacy of graduate archival programs as their reason for offering an Arrangement and Description certificate. I hope we see them do more in the coming years.

What are your thoughts on archival education? Have an idea for how we could make it better? Share your thoughts in the comments!

SAA Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies

SAA Directory of Archival Education

Here’s a sampling of different schools’ offerings in archival studies around the US:

San Jose State University MARA & MLIS

Western Washington University History, Archives, and Records Management MA

New York University Archives/Public History MA

Queens College MLS

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee MLIS

University of Wisconsin-Madison MLIS

University of Michigan MSI

Dominican University MLIS


Image courtesy of Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

5 replies

  1. I think this is such an important subject. I know virtually nothing about archival work–but that’s kind of the point. Two years as a student of library and information science at the postgraduate level, the most essential thing I have learned is how paradoxically broad and exclusive my chosen field of specialty is.

    When I enrolled as a student of LIS, for example, I had only the vaguest idea that my skills would be valued by corporations as well as public and academic libraries. I had some notion of the existence of medical, legal, and other special libraries, but I knew nothing at all about the use of LIS graduates as gatherers of strategic intelligence or supporters of advancement or managers of digital assets. On the other hand, I also had no idea that preservation and conservation were different fields and I would be ill-prepared to enter either of them. Neither was I aware that archival work would also be beyond much of my study.

    In my eighteen-month program, I took a total of 15 semester-long classes. My program is only one of the many available, but I don’t think it’s totally unique in struggling to offer an educational experience that is both broad enough and deep enough to prepare us all for entrance into the very broad, very deep job market. So I think you’re right: we’ve got to keep opening up the conversation about this. Lack of uniform quality is, I think, probably a function of the struggle to meet the exceedingly tricky challenge of doing it all.

    Anyway, we librarians are pretty good at continuing education. So praise for WISE and praise to you, Carissa. Thanks for writing about your experience.


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