What do Archivists Do?

Archivists are tasked with preserving and making accessible records of enduring value. To accomplish this task, archivists wear many hats. Below is information about the day-to-day tasks performed by archivists.

Circle outlining main archival tasks: acquire, appraise, arrange and describe, preserve, access, outreach and manage.

Obtaining Records

Archival records arrive at the archives from a variety of sources through the archival task of acquisition. The United Church of Canada Archives acquires records from the General Council offices and the Regions, Communities of Faith, former Conferences and presbyteries of the Central Ontario region. These types of records are considered organizational and are transferred to the Archives. The Archives may also receive records through archival donations; where an archivist works with an individual outside of the church who holds records of enduring value to the church.

The United Church of Canada Archives, however, does not take in all records. The records the Archives accepts is outlined in our Acquisition Mandate.

When records are transferred to the archives, documentation is created so the Archives knows where the records came from, who was responsible for the transfer, how many boxes or gigabytes were transferred, the type of records that are transferred, the date range of the records and a listing of what was transferred. This documentation helps the archivist understand the context of the records and can help with the overall processing plan.

Assessing Records

The assessment of records begins when the archivist starts to go through the records. This process is called appraisal in the archival profession, (not to be confused with monetary appraisal). Appraisal occurs because the Archives cannot keep everything that is given to us. We undertake this work using archival best practices and appropriate legislation. Some reasons material isn’t kept include:

  • Preservation difficulties.
  • Material is outside the scope of the Acquisition Mandate.
  • Material, in particular photographs, don’t include information to provide context.
  • The organization hasn’t deemed the records as having enduring value.

Organizing and Cataloguing Records

While assessing the records, archivists begin to organize the material so it can be available to users. This process is known as arrangement. Arrangement must occur because material seldom arrives at the archives in a way that is easy to use and access. Arrangement is hierarchical in nature; the highest level being the most general. The hierarchical arrangement is generally divided by subjects. To review arrangement possibilities please visit the organization of archival material page. The arrangement of the records is not arbitrary. It involves maintaining important connections between the records to better understand how they were used by their creators.

Archivists must also catalogue material so users can find and assess whether the material is pertinent to their research. Cataloguing in the archival profession is known as description. The description process provides a quick snapshot of the records and, like arrangement, is hierarchical in nature. Descriptions can form many different guides. The most common being a finding aid. Finding aids are broken down into specific parts to make it easier for the user to digest the information.

Finding aids for The United Church of Canada Archives are available on the Archives catalogue platform.

Preservation of Records

While the archivist conducts the arrangement of the material, they also take action to preserve material for long-term access. Preservation steps depend on the type of records. Analogue records require proper enclosures and a climate controlled room, at the very least, to ensure longevity. Digital records require normalization or migration as well as secure server space, at the very least, to ensure longevity. Archivists are equipped with the knowledge to preserve different types of records and identify records that are in need of conservation.

Access to Records

Once the records are preserved, arranged and described, they are available to the public. Responding to inquiries and helping users find material they need for their research is known as reference. Sometimes locating records involves a phone call or email exchange. Other inquiries involve a reference interview to fully understand the scope of the research.

Archival records don’t leave the repository once they are transferred. Users that would like to review the records can visit the archives during opening hours. Users can also requests digital copies of records. If there are no restrictions to making copies, the archives will provide the copies to the user for a fee.


Archivists work to promote their work and collections to United Church of Canada staff and to the wider public by using social media, online exhibits and themed websites.

Managing Repositories

In addition to the above tasks, the archivist also performs many administrative tasks to keep the repository going. This includes ordering supplies, registering users, maintaining facilities, liaising with IT and vendors to keep systems running, strategic planning, fiscal responsibilities, supervising volunteers and interns and keeping statistics.