Our volunteers work on a variety of projects. Read about some of their experiences.
As someone who loves history, and military history in particular, volunteering on the First World War Diaries project was something I couldn’t resist. In researching my own family history, I had seen a couple of diary entries (held by regiments and The National Archives) but I hadn’t realised that these documents had been available for the public to see, except for those that had been either transcribed or digitised and held online.
Preparing more diaries for digitisation has provided a unique chance for the world to see what was really there, and something of what this generation went through.
Surprises abounded while going through these files and many of these have been logged separately so that they can be evaluated for future reference. Finds made during this project included information or incidents long forgotten, but which appear to be fascinating now, as well some exquisite drawings done by the soldiers in the trenches…all seemingly lost in the mists of time.
Many people might have thought they knew what happened during the war, but actually reading these documents, written in soldiers’ own words while trying to survive in some very arduous conditions of fear, misery, boredom, the cold and wet during the stark brutality of war, gave me a better perspective of the realities this very brave generation lived and died in.
Deciding to change my career path, I opted to undertake a Master’s in Library Science. Not having any prior experience in the field, I was happy to have the opportunity to volunteer at The National Archives.
Working on the project to digitise the First World War diaries has proved an invaluable and interesting experience. On the one hand, it has given me a better understanding of how archives work and where their future lies, tying into the theoretical work I’ve done on my course. On the other, it has given me practical experience that I can later take into the workplace.
A general interest in the past has also made it a pleasure to become involved in history at a hands-on level. Having the chance to handle and read the documents themselves is a real privilege. Volunteering at The National Archives has been useful in terms of a future career, but has also has been incredibly satisfying on a personal level.
I suppose the reason I volunteer is so that I can still feel useful and contribute to society, while still doing something of interest to me. By using the skills and experience I have learnt over the years (working at a university and studying art history) I can help make something happen, which, usually because of lack of funds, otherwise might not.
I have volunteered on two projects at The National Archives, Kew. The first is on the Middlesex Court records of appeal cases against conscription in the First World War. This involves preparing the documents ready for conservation and scanning for the website. While you are doing this you are encouraged to do a quick read of the cases and to note down any interesting ones. This gives you an insight into society at the time and sometimes can be quite sad, especially as the war drew on and the older men were called up because there were no young ones left.
I was involved in the Board of Trade patent records, mainly kept in very large albums. The patents are quite varied and the object is to record any text which may occur either on an article, like a visiting card case, or alongside it, such as the name of a textile design, the manufacturer’s number or notes, or the agent who submitted the patent. Some make you wish you knew a bit more about a period, such as a large silk kerchief with the images and names of people involved in the Anti-Corn Law protests. With others your own knowledge or ability to read handwriting can be helpful.
I have also done other kinds of volunteering over the past five years, including some online editing of two of the magazines published by Charles Dickens ahead of his bicentenary, and working as an usher at the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames.