The value of volunteering in archives

“Too many People think of volunteer service as cheap labour. Real voluntary service is nothing of kind. It is the gift of one’s skill, one’s time, and one’s energy, given by an understanding human being for a special reason”

Lady Reading, It's the Job that Counts I,1953

Five/six years ago I wrote and submitted my dissertation for my Msc Econ in Archive Administration. The focus was the value of volunteers in county and community archives in North West England and how archives could or couldn’t conform to Government policy. This was at a time when the MLA had just become defunct and ideas like the Big Society (remember that?) were floating around. Five/six years is a long time and many things have changed included my move from an interest in county/community archives to specialist ones. However the value that volunteers provide to archives hasn’t.

Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage collection we have a team of volunteers who come on a regular basis and take on roles such as: repackaging, digitisation, cataloguing, occasionally giving talks to local groups and accessioning to name a few. Everything they do helps to make our work a success and volunteers improve access and knowledge about material; work which staff cannot complete is taken care of by volunteers; the preservation needs of material are met by volunteers and the archives is promoted to other members of the public.

Volunteers also bring specialist knowledge for example skills from previous professions such as specific knowledge of photography or computer skills. In our case most volunteers bring knowledge of the history of WVS/WRVS/Royal Voluntary Service through their own experiences of services such as meals on Wheels, Books on wheels, being District Organisers, Vice-chairmen or office secretaries. This helps us to understand the context of the material they are working with and allows them to learn more about their different interests in the charity. Volunteering doesn’t just benefit the Archives it also advantageous to the volunteers.

Back in 2011 I interviewed several volunteers about their different roles in archives this included people who were retired, unemployed, seeking work experience or in the case of community archives they were volunteers interested in telling the story of a certain group in society. While they helped the archives volunteering also gave them something. This can be split into two categories educational benefits and social benefits. I concluded that in county and community archives education came second and social came first as primarily volunteers went to the archives to socialise with other people.

Here at the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection most of our volunteers are retired and occasionally we have student and graduate volunteers however it seems there is more of a balance between education (Knowledge and skills) and the social aspect. In just over five years I have seen volunteers learn new skills such as cataloguing, blog writing and handling or other preservation skills. Many of our volunteers who meet on the same day have also formed friendships and meet outside the Archive. We have also celebrated their achievements and time with service awards.

So remember volunteering is a two way thing volunteers give archives their valuable time, knowledge and skills, in return volunteers can make new friends and learn new skills. Also archives will always need volunteers without them we would not have been so successful in many projects.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 24 July 2017.

Labels: volunteers, archives, skills, education, social, volunteering

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