Archivist vs. Librarian: Which Career Path Is for You?

You’re finishing up your history degree and wondering what comes next. You enjoy reading about history, exploring vintage documents and photographs, organizing information, and facilitating others’ learning. You’re familiar with the roles of both archivists and librarians, but which one is the best fit for you?

Before you set out to pursue your dream career, it’s important to explore the similarities and differences between archivists and librarians, including the educational requirements, day-to-day job description, and salary range. In broad terms, a librarian tends to help patrons find information and conduct research, while an archivist is in charge of processing, appraising, and cataloging important documents and records. So while at first, the two careers seem similar, the daily routines of these roles are actually quite different. And, as you’ll see, each role calls for a slightly different skill set.

A librarian opens up a book to read.

Archivist Overview

An archivist’s primary role is to preserve important documents and records. While many archivists are found in libraries, they can also work in government offices, museums, universities, or hospitals. Archivists have many different work environments available because almost every organization needs to keep important records.

Archivists also appraise, process, and catalog documents and records that are acquired by their organization. This means the archivist determines the value of each piece, uses a system to document its arrival at the institution, and determines the best way to organize the document within the institution. To accomplish this, archivists must have strong attention to detail and innovative methods for organizing information to help institutions become more efficient.

Archivist Salaries and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for an archivist in May 2018 was $48,400. A career as an archivist provides ample opportunity. In fact, the BLS predicts that employment for archivists will increase 14% from 2016 to 2026 — double the national average for all jobs. This robust job outlook is due to the increasing volume of documents arriving at institutions as well as the continuing transition from written to online systems.

Librarian Overview

Librarians help people conduct research or find information. There are various types of libraries in which librarians may work, including public libraries or academic libraries in a high school or university, or medical libraries at hospitals or medical centers. Their specific job description may vary depending on the type of library.

Librarians take on a wide range of responsibilities. They typically work directly with patrons, plan and implement special programs and classes, organize and order library materials, train other library staff and volunteers, and purchase and install new technology for the library. Librarians need a deep knowledge of the contents of their libraries and strong people skills to help patrons find information.

Librarian Salaries and Job Outlook

The BLS reports the average salary for librarians in May 2018 was $59,050. The employment rate of librarians is projected to increase by about 9% from 2016 to 2026, which is slightly above the average for all jobs. This growth indicates that libraries continue to be important information centers for communities.

Similarities Between Archivists and Librarians

There are several similarities between archivists and librarians. First, both tend to work in academic settings like libraries, universities, and museums. Next, they often start with an undergraduate degree in history or a related field. Organizational skills remain important for both careers since these roles ensure that materials are easily accessible to the public. Last, they both preserve and maintain information databases so future generations can access and use this information.

Differences Between Archivists and Librarians

There are many important differences between archivists and librarians. This includes whom they work with, what they work with, and how they land their jobs. Archivists work with historical records and documents, often with a small team or specialized researchers. Librarians work with a vast range of media, and depending on the professional environment, they serve different kinds of patrons — from pleasure readers who are stopping in for the latest best-selling novels to law students who are looking to access case data.

Behind the Scenes vs. Public Interaction

A huge difference between an archivist and a librarian is the amount of interaction they have with the public. Because archivists work with documents and records, and spend most of their time processing and preserving these records, people in this role rarely if ever interact with patrons of their institutions. On the other hand, librarians often work one-on-one with library patrons to help them find information and conduct research.

Historical Records vs. Books and Media

In addition to working privately versus publicly, archivists and librarians work with different materials. Archivists work with permanent records and historically valuable documents such as photographs, prints, and maps. These might include, for example, historical maps used for city planning, which provide a record of evolving property lines and infrastructure. Maps like these, as well as other documents, are often fragile, rare, or one of a kind, so archivists must be extremely careful and meticulous in their work.

Conversely, librarians work with books, media, and other resources. These can span a wide range and can include everything from a classic novel like War and Peace to the latest blockbusters on Blu-ray. These resources may be rare or fragile, but most are not. Librarians need to have strong organizational and interpersonal skills to guide patrons who are researching a topic or looking for a particular item.

General Master’s Degree vs. Master of Library Science

Although both careers benefit from similar foundational degrees, such as a bachelor’s degree in history, they typically require different master’s degrees. Archivists may earn a degree in history, library science, public administration, archival science, or political science. Librarians almost always need a master’s degree in library science.

Why the difference? Archivists may find it possible to complete a master’s degree in a variety of subjects that provide insight into the topics that are relevant to their future position. These topics may include appraisal, preservation, or specific historical eras. Librarians, however, work with cutting-edge technology and help others access it, as well as create budgets, develop acquisition plans, and create catalogs. For the evolving, high-level, and exacting skills demanded of modern librarians, they typically need a master’s degree that is specific to their field and equips them with the diverse know-how to thrive. Many states also have required certification tests for librarians, especially if they are working in an academic setting.

Archivist vs. Librarian: Which Is Right for You?

Knowing the major differences between archivists and librarians can help you get a sense of which role may be the best fit for you. If you prefer to work directly with historical documents and would rather be behind the scenes, an archiving career probably would be a good fit. While it doesn’t involve directly working with members of the community, archivists often have the satisfaction of knowing their work contributes to the preservation of the history of a place and a people.

If you enjoy organizing your class notes for easy access later, or alphabetizing your graphic novel collection, or helping others access information for their personal or professional use, a career as a librarian may be a great fit. You’ll need to work well with others and be comfortable with constantly researching and ordering new materials for your institution.

Both careers can start with an undergraduate degree in history. Take a look at Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in History and take the first step to become an archivist or librarian. In addition to studying history, this program involves applying research, organizational, and communication skills to support a librarian or archivist role in a variety of settings. Discover how you can begin your journey today to a career preserving and sharing vital information.

American Libraries, “The Librarian and the Archivist”

Maryville University, Online Bachelor of Arts in History

Society of American Archivists, “So You Want to Be an Archivist”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Librarians

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