Volunteers play an integral role in the heritage sector. Their time and effort goes a long way towards completing projects and making collections more accessible to the public. To learn a little more about the appropriate use of volunteers, Sarah and I travelled to Leicester’s New Walk Museum to attend a training session. The day was organised by the East Midlands branch of the Archives and Records Association (ARA) and included delegates from universities and record offices across the country. Coming from a small department, I was intrigued to learn how to gain and keep new enthusiastic volunteers.
Caroline Williams, the president of the ARA, began the day with a talk on the varying types of volunteers. The two main categories are those who are looking for social enjoyment and those who are aiming to improve future employability. The second category includes pre-course experience for future archivists as well as volunteers who want to gain new skills to enhance their CV. This was a similar path to the one I undertook before beginning this traineeship. It was these differences which Williams argued needed to be considered to manage volunteers effectively. To fully support those who are giving their free time to help, it is essential to understand their needs. They are there to help and by understanding their expectations they are more likely to work effectively and happily within your team.
The day continued with case studies from organisations with varying numbers of volunteers. The nature of volunteering is changing to reflect the wider scope of the archive sector. Volunteers can now experience digitisation and outreach roles as well as the listing of records which has previously been completed. Episodic project based volunteering is on the rise as many time-restricted projects require extra assistance to be completed within a set time frame. This change in focus for archive volunteers encouraged a discussion on what the future holds for volunteering.
The delegates felt that in the future there will be a greater focus on remote volunteering. This would include allowing access to documents online so that they can be transcribed and listed without physical access to the collection. They also thought that volunteering would act as a social scheme to allow people to re-enter the workforce. Volunteers will be able to enhance their IT and administrative skills whilst working within a team. This method is already being trialled in Wigan Archives and shows how the organisation can give back to those who are willing to help.
These were the top five tips given to help understand volunteers:
- Don’t blur the lines between a professional role and a volunteer, they are not a paid member of staff
- Create a clear and concise volunteer policy
- Keep the initial paperwork to a minimum, they are not applying for a job
- Be present, offer support and remain patient
- Provide tea and cake to maintain happy volunteers!
To read more about volunteering in archives, please read Caroline Williams’ report here.