One may wonder what the difference is between an archivist and a documentary editor, and that is a fair question, but there is a clear answer. Documentary editors often spend their entire career dealing with the papers of one individual, whereas archivists tend to work with large collections of documents relating to a variety of topics. There are many types of archivists, but I am going to focus on three. They are city/county archivists, business archivists, and governmental archivists.
City and county archivists control a vast amount of information. They tend to be in county court houses or city halls, and they are the people to see when you are searching for land records or deeds. There are very complex systems of tracking land ownership and, it seems, every city and county handles it differently. It is, therefore, nearly impossible to begin your work without the assistance of the local archivist. There are other types of archives at the local levels, and they really fall under the category of Local/Regional History. Families tend to donate documents from their grandparents or parents after they pass away and these are often donated to local museums. These documents may or may not contain important information to the museums, but they do for genealogy and those records may be important when filling out forms for the National Register of Historic Places as well as a wide variety of other research.
Business historians are becoming more and more prevalent in the business community. Large corporations produce a vast amount of paperwork (memos, quarterly reports, etc.), but many corporations also hold a large number of Patents and Copyrights. Research into this area becomes necessary when Copyright or Patent claims arise. This is a growing profession and should be considered by those with an interest in archives as well as business.
The most common type of archivist, however, works for the government. There are many different positions available for an archivist within the government. The military employs historians (usually civilian) on EVERY base to keep records and produce reports for the commanding Generals. The National Park Service employs archivists to work on historic sites and in museums. The most popular job within the government, however, is working for the National Archives. There are a wide variety of jobs within the National Archives and the most important thing they do is the declassification of documents. This requires the skill of interpretation that a historian possesses. Documents are placed in boxes according to subjects and each document must be read and placed in its proper location with the possibility of cross-referencing (meaning it deals with more than one subject). This process is tedious and may explain why the National Archives is behind in brining declassified documents to the public!
I have had some archive experience when I worked at the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri. There is nothing like reading through documents that have not been seen in decades. Archivists do this on a daily basis and it makes for an interesting career. Many public historians choose to go this route since there are a wide variety of options within the field.
NOTE: This is the ninth in a ten part series on Public History. The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6. A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.