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Craig Shaw – an appreciation

In our past blog posts we’ve usually concentrated on the project subject matter, whether that be cases found in the records we’re working with, contributions about railway accidents, or project events and activities. However, this week we’re focusing on one of the project team, for an appreciation of his work: Craig Shaw.

An image of Craig Shaw, smiling, holding a box of archival records at the National Railway Museum.
Craig, captured amongst the NRM’s archives in 2019.

Craig was a modest man, and we weren’t too sure what he would have made of this, had we done it whilst he was still alive. For, sadly, Craig died earlier in the year. Last week family, friends, neighbours and more met at the National Railway Museum to celebrate Craig’s life. Far from being a sad occasion, there were plenty of happy voices, funny photos and good memories.

We can’t do Craig justice in this blog post, so the best we can aim for is an impression, particularly from the project side of his life. And it was a side – one of many, of course. Speaking personally, I’d not appreciated just how busy Craig had been in other areas of his life. In his time he’d been a school governor, involved in the Scouting movement, and enjoyed the theatre, beyond his working life. The photos offered at the celebration showed a full life, well lived, so I’m quite sure I’ve missed plenty else out. He was clearly highly regarded by those outside his family, and loved by those within.

It was particularly good to be able to speak with Kath, Craig’s wife of 46 years. Karen and I knew of her, via Craig, but until that point we’d never been in touch directly. It was lovely and important to be able to tell her in person how much Craig had meant to the project, and how his role in it had been central to what we’ve been able to do so far – including how the work has been used internationally, and has made a difference to people’s research.

From the project’s perspective, we were fortunate to have Craig on board as an integral part of the NRM team from the outset. Craig was a long-term volunteer with the NRM at the point at which the project started. We were fortunate that he’d just come to the end of one project and was interested in getting involved in ‘Railway Work, Life & Death.’ His expertise was just what we needed to ensure we could not only get started, but do so smoothly and efficiently – and then that we could continue with new datasets.

Craig took on the pivotal role as ‘Volunteer Administrator.’ Those words might not mean much in the abstract, but what Craig actually did was fundamental. He was the lynchpin: our ‘clearing house,’ coordinating the flow of records out and completed work in. He was the central point of contact for the NRM remote volunteering team working on the project. The volunteers were scattered across the UK, and dealing with multiple sets of records at any one time meant that keeping a track of it all was a challenge. It needed a phenomenal degree of organisation, from someone with a systematic approach.

It’s hard to emphasise how important this role was. Craig was one of the few people who had seen virtually all of the project data, in detail. Well over 25,000 cases passed through his hands, benefitting from his care and attention. We’re currently working on the final steps to make a great many of these available, and hope to release them shortly.

This wasn’t just a technical or organisational role. Craig had to think on his feet, answering volunteer queries yet also knowing when to seek further help. He also worked on the records and the process: he was an active creator in the project. He and I discussed the spreadsheets into which volunteers enter data, to ensure they were as straightforward to use and as logically organised as possible. Here Craig’s professional and wider experience was crucial, as he was able to spot issues before they got to the volunteers, saving time and headaches later. A strong testament to his contribution is that the project ran smoothly, with most people unaware of the underlying process or Craig’s effort. Apparently it ‘just worked’; the real effort wasn’t visible because it happened seamlessly.

Craig did the first layer of data-cleaning on the transcribed records received from volunteers, sorting out innumerable technical glitches or differences between transcribers. I should note that the project became something of a family affair, too: Kath’s support was essential, and one of their sons also provided help with scanning some records and with fixing some of the technical questions we ran into. We could see throughout that the project meant a lot to Craig, and as ill-health took a greater toll on him, he was clear that he wanted to carry on for as long as possible. Kath confirmed that – despite everyone’s insistence that he stop at whatever point necessary – he wanted to do ‘just another set of records,’ to continue to build the value of the project. Importantly, Craig got pleasure and satisfaction from the project.

Despite working with Craig on the project for 5 years, I only met him in person once. There he was as I’d known him on email, our primary means of contact: cheery, bright, with a wry but warm smile. He could ask awkward questions – but all to the improvement of the project, as they were challenging questions that needed asking, and always done with good humour. I appreciated his frankness, along with his willingness to suggest changes. He cared deeply about the project and volunteers, and I will miss his jovial approach.

I know I’m not alone in this, either. It’s worth starting with a few comments received from some of the project volunteers when we passed on news of Craig’s death, shared here with their permission. Peter Robinson noted Craig’s humour – including that ‘I will miss his emails and banter’ and that they’d been planning to meet. Philip James confirmed his experience of Craig’s ‘passion for the project and railways’ and that ‘Craig’s work on NRM projects was critical to their success so they stand in part as a tribute to him.’ Jonathan Stein captured Craig’s calm demeanour: ‘though I only ever saw Craig once in person he and I obviously communicated a lot regarding the Railway Work, Life & Death project and I greatly valued his unfailing patience when I was tardy with my indexing contributions!’

Emma Faragher Smith (NRM Volunteering Manager) worked with Craig in a variety of ways:

Craig was also a long-term volunteer at the National Railway Museum. Over almost 20 years at the Museum Craig was a regular volunteer on the Information Points; as part of the close-knit ‘Thursday Team’ who helped visitors navigate the site, Craig would regularly help visitors with enquiries from the mundane ‘where are the toilets?’ to complex questions about the collection. He also regularly supported special events at the Museum, like the 2016 Scotsman Season celebrating the restoration of Flying Scotsman. But it was in his volunteering with archive collections that Craig made his most significant mark on the work of the Museum. Before his involvement with ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ he worked on a similar remote volunteering project to support the creation of a citation index for the Alan Jackson Archive.  Craig’s close work with the library and archives team at the Museum didn’t simply support the creation of a finding aid for this fascinating collection, it helped us to shape and develop NRM’s understanding of digital and remote volunteering.  This was our first significant digital volunteering project, and had lasting impact and value for the Museum – not least for the management of the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ over the last five years.

And from Karen Baker (NRM Librarian and RWLD project co-lead):

Craig has been a sounding-board and critical friend to me these past ten years, first working together on the Alan Jackson index and then ‘Railway Work, Life & Death.’ His dedication, diligence and sound practical advice cannot be replaced and I literally could not have managed these projects without him. Craig was a powerhouse of industry behind the scenes. For most of the time we worked together, Craig and I shared an office, and we could shout across the room questions and queries and funny quirks of information. Latterly, when Craig’s health deteriorated and then Covid struck, Craig worked from home. The banter subsided but his industry did not. Craig worked on the project all through 2020. He kept the life-blood of volunteering alive at the museum, when virtually all other volunteering had to be put on hold. His perseverance, I’m sure, gave structure and purpose to the wider volunteer team, as they were able to continue their work during the various lockdowns. At the end, he reluctantly had to stop, but his legacy will live on and we will continue the project and continue to promote its use in every avenue we can.

I wanted to end with a single comment from a representative of the people the project is all about: the researchers using the project information. Over the years we know that thousands of people have downloaded the project data, on every inhabited continent. We’ve heard directly from a great many people about the value that the project – and Craig’s work, though they might not have known it – has provided. Sometimes that’s direct: finding an ancestor in the records, for example. And sometimes it’s broader: helping think about research in new ways, as in this comment from Steve Jackson, who noted that the project

has made me think about “communities within communities”, and about the risks that came with the employment opportunities which were brought by the railways and taken up by people from my Place. And of course it prompted me to research and tell the story of a railway employee only tangentially connected to my ‘One Place Study’, when I discovered that the injuries he received in an accident at work prompted people in my Place to stage a fundraising event for his benefit!


Craig: thank you.

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