Passing the Certified Archivist Exam

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The ACA exam was held in downtown New Orleans (pictured here) in August 2013.

By Colin Woodward

I am a historian of the American South. I am also an archivist. In August of 2013, I took the certification exam for archivists that’s administered by the Academy of Certified Archivists. For me, it was not an easy exam. I never went to library school,an d all I know about archiving I have learned on my own or at work. I squeaked by with a score of 73%.

This post is about my experience, which I hope may prove useful for others who are planning to take the exam this year or in other cities that have enough participants to host it.


I’ve worked full-time in the archives for more than nine years. Before 2013, however, I hadn’t read much about what I do every day. My first position, at the Virginia Historical Society, involved item-level descriptions, mostly of small collections. The largest collection I processed was maybe 25-30 linear feet, yet most archival literature seems focused on very large collections: how to process them or how to cut them down to manageable sizes. When I was studying for the CA exam, I realized that I needed to catch up quickly when it came to archival theory.

Gregory Hunter

In preparation, I read several books cover to cover. The first was Gregory Hunter’s Developing and Maintaining Practical Archives. This is a great primer for archivists, especially in learning about the history of archives, namely, how modern archiving began with the French Revolution, which set up the first public archives, and took on new shape when in 1934 NARA began collecting huge sets of government records. Hunter covers the Seven Domains of archiving, from conservation to management to processing.

T. R. Schellenberg

Another helpful book was T. R. Schellenberg’s classic, Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques. Especially welcome in the version I read was the biographical information on Schellenberg, who was raised in Kansas and later worked in the National Archives, where he wrote about record center management and was an all-around pain in the ass.

The biographical sketch put some flesh on what was otherwise a bone-dry reading assignment. There was one question on the exam specifically on Schellenberg that I remember concerning the evidential and informational value of records. Schellenberg also repeatedly spoke about the hierarchy of collections: record group, series, subseries, folder, and item levels. And this information was also on the test.

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Jackson Square.

Daniels and Walch

Another useful book was Daniels and Walch’s Modern Archives Reader, which pulled together numerous essays on all aspects of archiving, including essays by Schellenberg and other influential figures, such as England’s Hilary Jenkinson.

Elana Danielson

The last book I read, and which I did not finish before the exam, was The Ethical Archivist by Elena Danielson. This was by far the most interesting book I read on archiving as well as the most current. It helped me, because I did best on the domain concerning ethics of the profession. Danielson talks a lot about provenance and the controversies surrounding historical items taken from one country by another, especially during the Second World War.

Big Tobacco

What you might remember most about the book is Danielson’s examination of the cigarette case in which an archive in California had documents belonging to a tobacco company that was hiding the dangers of smoking from consumers. The papers were given to the archives by a professor (someone had mysteriously dropped the documents on his doorstep).

Once accessioned, the archives refused to hand the incriminating papers over to the tobacco company, which claimed they were stolen property (even though the company still had the originals). The archives had to “lawyer-up,” big time, but it was successful in continuing to provide access to the collection, which became available online–thus rendering possession of the originals a moot point.

The public, a judge eventually decided, had a right to know that a corporation was deliberately causing harm to consumers. However, corporations usually have the right to prohibit access to their own records because they are private entities. The public doesn’t always have a “right to know.”

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Audubon Park


A few weeks before the exam, I made about a 30 page outline based on what I had read and gleaned from other sources, including webinars on photographic history and conservation. I also made a stack of notecards. On the whole, I studied pretty much every day for months, doing an hour or two of reading or other preparation. Come exam day, I felt unprepared. I wish I had had more time, but I work full-time and was also completing my first book on the Civil War. Oh, and a one-year old daughter. Nevertheless, I figured I had nothing to lose in taking the test. I could always retake it a year later.

The Big Day

About a hundred people were in the exam room. The test contained 100 questions, and I had three hours to complete it. I used the whole three hours. Not only had I invested a lot of time in studying, my employer was paying for the trip. I wanted to make sure I read and re-read every question carefully before I made my final answer. I was the second to last person to leave. One fellow left after an hour, and most were gone by the two-hour mark.


The exam covers the Seven Domains of archiving, with 14-15 questions per domain. A passing score is 67%, it’s multiple choice, and there’s no harm in guessing. The first five questions seemed the hardest group of five in the entire exam. Some questions concerned things I had never encountered before.

My weaknesses were many. I wish I had studied more about conservation methods and knew more about the digital aspects of archiving (and this proves true in my daily work). Oddly, as I noted earlier in this entry, I did the best on the ethical aspects of archiving and did the worst on Arrangement and Description, which is mostly what I have done as an archivist. There were only a few questions that I felt I should have known based on the readings I did and the knowledge I have. More than once, I had to guess. Over all, I felt the exam was fair, and I did not feel rushed.

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The Central Business District


Here’s some advice on how to approach the exam:

a) It’s a best practices exam. Don’t think “This is what I’d do.” Rather, think “This is what I should do.” Remember your driver’s exam, when they asked you a bunch of questions that have no basis in the everyday realities of driving, like exactly how to far to park from a fire hydrant? Well, the CA exam is a bit like that.

b) Think: what is the most basic answer to this question? One question asked about designing an exhibit. What makes for the best kind of exhibit? One that is provocative? Or one that is well-planned and executed, regardless of content? Hint: it’s the latter.

Also, be mindful of how an archive’s mission statement relates to its collection policies. In the real world, your boss might want you to process a set of papers because the donor is a wealthy friend–and her papers have little to do with what your archives usually processes. Ideally, however, you should accept materials that are only supportive of the archive’s mission.

SAA Reading Lists and Vocabulary

c) Familiarize yourself very well with the reading list that the ACA provides for studying. The list is available at their website. I knew I couldn’t possibly read everything on the list. However, you should know the title and authors of all the readings. Some of the questions I missed I could have answered correctly had I better known who was on the reading list. I didn’t need to know chapter and verse of Randall Jimerson’s essay on archives and social justice, for example, but just having known the title would’ve been enough. There was only one question on “More Product, Less Process,” and it was very basic.

d) Familiarize yourself with the SAA vocabulary list and the ACA practice test questions (some of which were used for the actual exam). It never hurts to expand your vocabulary, especially when it can help you on a standardized test. Looking at the ACA practice questions will give you a very good idea of what to expect. It certainly scared me straight.

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French Quarter

I was surprised that some things were not on the exam at all:

–Questions about photographic history and conservation





–The history of NARA

ACA Proud

Passing the exam won’t necessarily make me a better archivist. But I’m proud to be a member of the ACA. Everyone I’ve spoken to about the exam passed the first time, but most did not think it was an easy test.

At the very least, besides getting an expenses-paid trip to New Orleans, taking the exam forced me to learn a lot more about archival theory, which was much richer than I had thought. I was trained well as an archivist at my first job, but studying for the ACA exam expanded my knowledge and made me aware of things that I would never have pondered otherwise.

One thing I noticed about archival theory is that it’s mostly based on knowledge of large government records: the kind Schellenberg worked with. However, I could probably benefit from reading about more “lone arranger” types, who don’t ever encounter 10,000 box collections, let along write about de-accessioning more papers in a year than some archives ever come across in their lifetime. My educational training is as a historian, but as the ACA exam studying process showed me, I have a lot to learn about archiving, even if I knew enough to pass.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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