Purpose This study explores the learning and career motivation of the students who have chosen archival studies as their major in their master's degree programs, which has scant prior research. Design/methodology/approach The authors use a qualitative interview method to investigate the students' opinions and underlying reasons. Nine students from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and University of British Columbia (UBC), both members of the iSchools, were interviewed. Considering the responses and research questions, the authors applied content analysis techniques to summarize data gathering from interviews into five themes to better interpret the meanings behind them. Findings Despite different development stages of archives sectors in Hong Kong and Canada, the learning and career motivation factors of these students from both universities share some similar characteristics and can also be divided into intrinsic factors (such as personal interests, personalities) and extrinsic factors (such as prior working experience, working environment, nature of archives work and development of the archives field). Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors significantly influenced them in choosing archival studies as major in their graduate studies. Practical implications These findings can help educators and professions review and improve the curricula as well as promote the profession to the public and attract more people to pursue their studies in the archives field. Originality/value Scant studies discussed the career development and education motivation of archivists, especially related to Asia. Copyright ©2021 Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.