In this post, those working with the volunteers at each of the project institutions reflect on the project so far, and in particular on what the volunteers are doing and have brought to their institutions.
Read the previous Volunteers’ Week post, from volunteer Cheryl Hunnisett, here.
National Railway Museum:
The Railway Museum’s volunteers have been instrumental in getting the RWLD project off the ground, producing the first data set of worker accidents from the Board of Trade Accident Reports for 1911-15, just shy of 4000 records. Once this was finished they were keen to continue, and worked their way through the tricky, because hand-written, task of deciphering and recording entries from the Great Eastern Railway’s Benevolent Fund record book (1913-23). Our dedicated team are currently working on their third set of data, transcribing the Railway Inspectorate reports for 1921-38.
All this information is incredibly useful for us in a multitude of ways: firstly, as is perhaps the most obvious, that we have a lot of family-history-related enquiries that this database directly helps with, allowing ancestors to be traced and often grim working practices revealed. Though this may not be a happy read, gaining better understanding, empathy and, hopefully, closure on past family members’ working lives, can be a positive experience.
The data is also allowing us to better interrogate worker stories. As a museum we try and weave people stories through our exhibition spaces, linking our objects with the lives of the people who used them, to bring them to life and to enable our visitors to make connections also. We hope to use the database to tease out case studies that can be used in future displays, such as the working practices of freight workers or wives and children indirectly affected by accidents – what happens to them when the bread-winner dies or can no longer work?
Finally, there is potential for the project to help shape research. So much data pulled from disparate sources will allow connections and new understandings to be drawn that would not have been possible before. New knowledge means new content, new exhibitions and increased visitor engagement. All good things for museums, but good for society too. Our volunteers are the lynchpin behind all this potential. I hope they realise how much they’re appreciated!
Modern Records Centre:
Our small but merry band of volunteers for the RWLD project have so far been working very hard on the annual reports of the railway trade unions between 1889 and 1915. They have been doing a fantastic job of transcribing details from Death Claims, Fatal and Non-Fatal Compensation payments, Board of Trade Inquiries, Disablement claims and Orphan Fund payments for selected years. Some of the volunteers have delved deeper to find backstories of the cases they have found particularly interesting or moving, chasing up information on the children or families of the railway workers. They have become familiar with the myriad of railway companies, railway terminology and some strange accidents and diseases. A few of them make regular trips to the MRC and enjoy working on the original volumes, as well as the scanned images from home.
This information could not have been retrieved without their help and we are incredibly grateful for their contributions and input to the project.
The National Archives:
For me the benefits of running a volunteer project are many. Firstly, it gets work done which would otherwise not get done, due to time constraints on staff and the sheer size of the work required. Many hands make light work.
Secondly, a volunteer project allows volunteers and staff to get to know a set of records in great depth, how they relate to other records and how they might be used in different ways and for different purposes. I have usually found that a volunteer project will de-mystify a set of records, bringing what may have sounded like a confusing or daunting subject down to earth and opening up the subject to ordinary people.
A volunteer project can lend itself to additional opportunities for events, articles and blog entries, and linking up with other organisations for collaborative work and support.
A volunteer project can provide an entry point for those new to archives, and to TNA in particular. Those with a curious mind, who might never have been to an archive before, can make a contribution and start a new area of interest for themselves.
A volunteer project often creates a cohesive group of volunteers who become friends, and through the momentum of the group may move on together to other projects. I have seen this happen at TNA, where the core of a group has worked on three separate projects over the last 20 years, and volunteers often remain in contact with each other after a project has finished.
The finished project (which is usually cataloguing in my case) opens up the records to remote users from around the world who would not have had access to them otherwise, and may not even have known they exist.
And finally, volunteers, who through the act of volunteering, are very often just nice people. It is a pleasure to work with them, and to see their interest in centuries old documents come alive. Seeing them handle, and use documents to discover stories for themselves. Sometimes those of us who work with old documents take this free access for granted, and forget what a privilege it is to have the chance to see, use and discover new things from these messages from the past.
University of Portsmouth:
Whilst I don’t look after a team of volunteers in the way that my project colleagues at the other institutions do, I do of course work with and support the volunteers in whatever way possible. It’s been a pleasure to work with, and in some cases meet, the volunteers, who have all proved enthusiastic and eager to find out more. For nearly 20 years I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with the sorts of documents the project is using and I love being able to discuss them with other knowledgeable people – as well as being introduced to new material by the volunteers themselves.
So far as the University is concerned, the project is important because it fulfils a number of key aims – including going beyond the usual boundaries of the University and involving all sorts of people not only in the project work, but also in generating research ideas and questions. To that end, the co-production sessions that we’ve run with the on-site volunteers have been really stimulating, and it’s great that we’re lining more up. I’ve been delighted by the questions and ideas that the volunteers have been coming up with – often things that I’d not have thought of, which was the hope of these sessions. I’m looking forward to the sessions that are coming up!
I’m tremendously grateful to all of our volunteers based at the institutions we’re working with, but I’d also like to mention one volunteer I work closely with, here in Portsmouth – albeit anonymously, as he’s said that he’s happy doing the work and doesn’t need or want any further recognition. As with all the project volunteers I’ve met in the flesh, he’s an interesting person and good to spend time talking with. However, so far as the project goes, he is a data wizard – he has cleaned up all of the data so far publicly available, sorting out inconsistencies and, significantly, adding in the often awkward-to-pin down historical county data. His work means we get a much better picture about the geographic distribution of accidents and make the data much more easily searchable by location. So – a big thank you to him for this.
What all of this adds up to is that we’re producing a vast resource that is of interest and use to huge numbers of people, in all sorts of ways. This simply wouldn’t have been feasible for a single person to do – certainly not without many years’ hard work and an endless supply of patience! What’s lovely is that the volunteers do seem to enjoy the work (perhaps counter-intuitively, given the subject matter) and get a lot out of it. Just as we hoped we’d see by looking at the individual-level accident data, people are key to the project – and that goes for the volunteers making it happen: thank you!