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“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
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.
Part of an archivist role is to allow access to the archives
they care for, one way of doing this is through outreach work. As many of you
will know here we run a remote enquiry service and cannot allow the public
physical access to our records however we still manage to provide outreach
through online educational resources. Over the years I have found that a lot of
archive outreach programmes focus on history but if in theory we don’t keep
archives for historical purposes why should we only promote them in teaching
that subject? Last year we launched the Voices of Volunteering School Resources; they aim to provide learning materials for educators teaching a
variety of subjects and skills.
Using our resources can actively help pupils to take part in
volunteering and learn how to be good citizens and improve society. Firstly
pupils learn about the role of Royal Voluntary Service today caring for older
people through the memories of volunteers recorded in oral histories. The other
resource discusses how in the 1990s WRVS moved from a Crown Service to a
Charity and how volunteers started to fundraise in their local areas. They aim
to encourage pupils to raise money for the charity in schools. It also uses
some recipes from the Bulletin, volunteers and Civil Defence Cards to inspire
ideas. Both resources focus on Citizenship, English and volunteering using
archives and teaches skills such as planning, collaboration,
problem solving, advocacy, campaigning and evaluation.
The second set of lesson plans encourages students to get involved in debates surrounding
volunteering and citizenship by using oral histories to highlight volunteers
opinions and experiences. The debates include:
- Why do people volunteer?
- What are the benefits of volunteering?
- How has it evolved in over 75 years?
You might be thinking these resources just give students
basic comprehension skills listen to a few short clips and then answer some
questions. However they are more exciting than that; they allow pupils to interpret,
discuss and debate helping them to form their own opinions on how we can
For example we have one resource titled “How does volunteering enhance your life as a volunteer?” This uses volunteers'experiences of working in different WRVS services including Meals on Wheels and Hospital Canteens. Using
these archives pupils on the roles of different types of active or potential volunteers:
They then debate the following topic:
Afterwards pupils reflect on the different interpretations
of the situation and come to a conclusion about how volunteering can enhance people's lives. Using oral histories in this way teaches:
KS3:To describe the roles played by voluntary groups in society, and the ways in which citizens work together to improve their communities
KS4: To describe the different ways in which a citizen can contribute to the improvement of his or her community
GCSE AQA English
To respond to the questions and views of others, adapting talk appropriately to context and audience.
As you can see Archives can be used in
different ways in outreach programmes in a verity of subjects and not just to
answer set questions.
You can see how we’ve used archives to teach secondary
school and further education students about a other topics including: PHSE,
drama, volunteering and history on our Voices of Volunteering resource site.