Archivist vs. Librarian: What's the Difference Between Them?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated October 17, 2022

Published May 18, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Though there are many similarities between the roles of an archivist and a librarian, you may wonder what the difference is between the two professions. While both work with information, there are distinctions in educational requirements, day-to-day duties, salary, and the skills you might require. Understanding the differences can help determine which career path might be right for you. In this article, we explore the duties of an archivist vs. librarian and explore their differences and similarities.

Archivist vs. librarian

To understand the differences and similarities of an archivist vs. librarian, it's helpful to define the roles. Generally speaking, a librarian helps people find information and do research. They are there to answer questions and help people find the answers they seek with referenced sources. Conversely, an archivist works privately, cataloguing, processing, appraising, and maintaining important documents.

What does an archivist do?

Archivists can work in many kinds of industries. Any business that holds records might employ an archivist. Though they often work in libraries, archivists also work in universities and colleges, hospitals, government offices, museums, and other historic institutions. Their main purpose is to set the criteria for acquiring assets for an archive and determining their value to the institution they represent.

Once they acquire records, they also determine the best ways to organize them so anyone who needs them can easily access them. They do this by describing the record and filing them according to the organization's system. It's also an archivist's job to maintain and preserve them.

Additional archivist duties

Archivists are also responsible for determining what not to keep. Since an archive can't house every document in existence, an archivist appraises the materials and determines their suitability for the collection. While it's not an exact science, there are guidelines and criteria they use to help determine if something is right for the archive.

Items that enter an archive can sometimes be very old and fragile. Thus, archivists work with conservators to determine how best to maintain a document's integrity. They help establish the best storage and housing requirements, such as an acid-free environment, a specific room temperature, or using a specific storage method.

Related: How to Become an Archivist

What does a librarian do?

In a world of increasingly electronic resources, the role of a librarian has changed significantly in the last few decades. While they handle the physical books housed in libraries, they also understand resources such as the internet and digital libraries and know how to access a wide range of digital databases. Librarians must be knowledgeable across a variety of both public and academic information sources. They also follow trends in publishing and technology to help guide their library's resources and collections.

The primary functions of a librarian focus on three areas:

  • User services: This entails working with library patrons to help find the information they need. They might also teach people how to find information on their own in the future.

  • Manage the library's collection: This includes acquiring and cataloguing new books so people can find them easily.

  • Administrative roles: These are usually management positions where they oversee staff, manage scheduling, outsource contracts for work that needs to be done, fundraise, and manage the library's budget. Librarians in administrative roles may also conduct public relations duties or oversee events.

Related: What Does a Librarian Do?

Archivist and librarian salaries

The national average salary for an archivist is $18.47 per hour. This can vary widely depending on the province you live in and the education you possess. The national average salary for a librarian is $33.75 per hour, depending on the province where you live and work.

How are archivists and librarians similar?

There are a few ways in which archivists and librarians are similar. They both work with resources of information and cataloguing, acquiring, and organizing those resources for institutions. Both librarians and archivists work in settings like libraries, schools, universities, colleges, government organizations, and museums. There are many years of education required to become a librarian or an archivist that requires an undergraduate degree in history or a related field. Librarians and archivists have strong organization skills and have a desire to preserve information for future generations to access.

Related:11 of the Most Popular Types of Library Jobs

How are archivists and librarians different?

There are several ways where librarians differ from archivists. Most notably, these differences are in where they work, who they work with, and the scope and scale of the materials they handle. Some of these differences include:

Public facing

Librarians work with the public more than archivists. They interact with library patrons of all ages, from children to senior citizens, and do a lot of one-on-one work to help the public find books, research materials, and learn to use technological resources. They might recommend a new book to read in someone's favourite genre or help someone research their family tree. To be successful at their jobs, librarians usually have strong interpersonal skills and a desire to work with the public and surrounding community.

Behind the scenes

Conversely, archivists deal very little with the public and work mostly with small teams and specialized researchers. They spend most of their time with documents as they process and preserve records. There is little need for them to interact outside their own departments and teams. Archivists usually have meticulous organizational skills.

Librarian scope of information

Another difference between librarians and archivists is the scale of the information they handle. Librarians are well-versed in a wide variety of topics across numerous mediums, from the latest bestsellers to how to conduct a thorough internet search on a topic of interest. Their knowledge may not be as extensive, but rather encompasses many facets of information. Librarians also work with mediums like textbooks, magazines, e-books, newspapers, and even movies.

Archivist scope of information

An archivist deals with more specialized documents and information directly related to an institution. They are experts in their field and have deep knowledge of that topic. Archivists also work with records and documents of historic value that often act as permanent records to be preserved for decades, or even centuries, to come. These records include things like maps, photographs, correspondence, legal documents, and death and birth registries. Where the resources archivists work with are often fragile and irreplaceable, librarians often work with resources intended for mass consumption that are easily found and replaced.

Educational requirements

Both career paths are best followed by obtaining an undergraduate degree at a university. This is often in the fields of history, English, or another related field. Librarians or archivists seeking more specialized roles may also pursue degrees in other fields. For example, if an archivist wanted to work specifically at a law library, they might also obtain a law degree. Or if a librarian wanted to work in a library associated with an art school, a degree in art might be beneficial.

Librarians working in Canada may need to obtain a master's degree in library science. There are three universities in Canada that offer a master's in library science: the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, and Western University. You can complete these programs either as a full-time or part-time student attending each respective campus.

What is library science?

Library science deals with the management of information and is a complex discipline due to the nature of technology and its increasing importance in libraries. If you pursue a library science degree, you'll explore areas like management, information technology and education, and how to collect, organize and store resources. The sub-fields of library science include documentation science, digital libraries, archive and record management, bibliography, information management, rare manuscripts, school libraries, and knowledge management.

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Which career is right for you?

After seeing the similarities and differences between archivists and librarians, you might wonder which is right for you. If you have a desire to work with the public and help people find information for the answers they're seeking, then the path of being a librarian might be a good position. If you may prefer to work with a small team in a highly specialized field, then you might want to look into becoming an archivist.

Related: The Essential Guide on How to Become a Librarian

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