Digital Volunteering

This August, I was asked by ARA West Midlands, to give a ten minute talk on digital volunteering because I had just successfully completed a digital volunteering project as part of my work at Leonard Cheshire.

The project, ‘Resonate‘ was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Foyle Foundation to digitise the historic sound collection of humanitarians Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC and Lady Sue Ryder OBE kept at the Leonard Cheshire Archive.

The project was planned as digital from the beginning, which was a stroke of luck when suddenly the project team were plunged into delivering from home during a pandemic!

Watch my recorded PowerPoint presentation below to find out more – I have included captions.

Archives work is emotional work

I am writing this blog from a personal perspective, as I reflect on working throughout a pandemic in archives. My thoughts have been encouraged by a blog written by project research assistants Elizabeth Bassett and Noah Duranseaud summarising a discussion at an Association of Canadian Archivists session ‘There’s something we need to talk about: Uncovering and Supporting Archivists’ Emotional Work‘.

To my eyes, ‘imposter syndrome‘ is endemic in the profession. This feeling of never being quite good enough. I think this is at the bottom of why the archives world seems to struggle with so many things, including diversity (my pet gripe as I’m sure you all know). It’s a fear of failure and of being seen as less than perfect. It’s feeling precarious in your workplace, all the time. And it holds us back. No-one wants to publicly fail. Yet sometimes, well actually ALL THE TIME, failure is how we learn. Add on top of that personal factors such as disability, race, sex, personal identity … you can see where I’m going with this.

The Archive school lesson that has stuck with me the most, is that we must always be ready to justify our existence. We are constantly in defence mode. I remember one task was coming up with an ‘elevator pitch’ on what an Archivist is and what archives do, to have ready as the first shot whenever our existence was questioned. Are we all being made insecure by the training we’re offered, before we even get a chance to enter the world of archive work?

More technically, archives work is emotional work. This can be through the cataloguing of the outputs of people’s intimate inner lives (personal papers, email, correspondence, family photos). Sometimes we are taking meticulous care over documenting the life of someone who we don’t like very much. Perhaps sometimes, we fall a little in love with them. Perhaps it will put you off enjoying a person’s life’s work once you learn what they were ‘really like’ and that lifelong joy has been soured. Maybe it’s a collection documenting something really traumatic or sickening. Or a volunteer or staff member going through a tough time. Even ourselves, suddenly in the spotlight, that gnawing anxiety that can’t be shifted that we’ve failed, publicly. Worst professsional nightmare, am I right?

This is so much at odds with archival theory where we are supposed to be ‘neutral’. Archival standards can feel like an impossible ideal. I know they do to me. When your existence is dismissed – ‘Archives? Never heard of them!’ it hurts. All that care and love just disregarded in a throwaway comment.

In a lockdown world, unfortunately we need our defence mode. The thing we were always warned about has actually happened. Archives, and the wider heritage sector, is in danger alongside many others. But I’m hopeful (we have to have hope) that we will rally once the vaccine arrives, and doors can open, and people can come back in. But please, when things have settled down, let’s be honest about our failings as well as our achievements. That’s the only way we can progress.

Promoting archives on social media in an accessible way

How can social media support the work of archives, especially in challenging times?

On the 26th August I took part in a panel for the Archives and Records Association’s ARA Together Online Community. The question was ‘How can social media support your work, especially through these challenging times?’

I was asked to be a member of the panel because of my work making social media posts accessible to disabled people. Further to that, our Heritage Lottery Rewind project included designing and testing an accessible website, and making all our digitised content accessible too.

We have had a social media account on Twitter since 2013, and learning how to make our tweets and digitised content accessible continues as technology (and the law) advances.

I was on the panel with Colin McDowell from The Towards a National Collection project and Gary Tuson from The History Begins at Home campaign. We had a lively discussion about what we had learned from diving into social media marketing as Archive workers and answered some questions from attendees.

I’ve had a chance to think about the conversation we had, and have a few observations that I thought would be useful to share here. There are quite a few Archive services that think they want social media, but don’t know how to start, or have been unable to convince their employer’s digital marketing team to give them a seat at the table. Hold that thought.

As the person there to talk about accessibility, I was asked if I thought archives’ social media was accessible and I answered no. As a sector, we are bad at making our digital resources accessible for disabled people, let alone our Tweets or Facebook posts. I’ve lost count of the amounts of films and digitised sound I’ve seen that have no open captions, no transcripts, no audio description and even today I’ve seen a few photographs of deeds tweeted that are completely inaccessible to anyone with a visual impairment.

I get it, in archives it’s hard to make old documents interesting online. But as I said in the call, it’s better to do a few things well on social media than a lot, poorly. If you want meaningful engagement, it has to be a commitment and it takes time to both create good quality accessible posts, and to interact with your audience and build a following.

Most of all, it’s important to know why you have the social media account in the first place. It may only be useful to you as a collaborative place as part of a project, or maybe as your news channel. Perhaps you need it to manage an online shop. That is fine, but it has to be a natural extension of your work and create value for your service.

As can be seen in the current social media attention on changes at the National Trust, engagement on social media can be a stressful experience, at an already challenging time. This is where the expertise of Digital Marketers really comes in handy. It takes time to gain the required skills. Digital marketing, just like being an Archivist, is a profession. Perhaps you do want your Marketing team to handle this rather than take it on alone.

But back to advice. The first thing to do if you are seriously considering a social media account is to do some audience research, and pick the platform where you know your audience hangs out online. When you’ve picked your social media platform, do some research on how accessible it is and plan what you need to do to make that post accessible. Accessible design will benefit everyone’s experience, not just disabled people. Write a social media plan, and stick to it.

Maybe in your case this is actually too much work, especially when time and availability of collections is limited due to lockdown. It is worth doing a honest appraisal of whether you have the time and if you will get the benefits you expect. I can’t sit here and say I’ve cracked it myself, though there are heritage accounts that have. In my case as a lone worker with a small amount of visiting researchers, our social media accounts have worked well to make us better known in the sector, and drive traffic to our website, which was our initial aim. We also contribute to our parent body’s main social media channels, which have a much larger audience.

If you can’t see real value for your service, efforts should be spent on cultivating your digital marketing team to let you in on their main accounts. Google some heritage social media calendars or use an Explore Your Archive campaign to get examples together and send to your marketing team. Speak to them in their language (the links I have shared should help). It’s worth a shot.

Finally, I will list some handy resources below. I feel I must mention that no one social media platform is better than any other if you haven’t identified your audience, and it’s worth monitoring trends in social media use. The latest research tells us that 1 in 3 adults are digitally detoxing, Facebook is not used by most young people aged 16-24 and Twitter, whilst still popular, has been losing active users since 2017. Instagram is attracting more users and Pinterest is having a resurgence. What does this tell us? Don’t put all your marketing efforts into social media alone.

Further resources

The Joy of Post

Today I read a lovely blog by Postal Museum Archivist Meg Venter, about the joy of post, especially in today’s Covid-19 lockdown world.

An envelope and carnations
An envelope with some carnations. Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

I also have had to distance and spent three months not leaving the house. I must confess to my online shopping habits increasing as I bought myself things that would arrive to my home. It made me feel like I had some contact with the outide world.

Do read Meg’s blog here .

The world around is us resetting to it’s new normal, at least the new normal until there’s a vaccine. For me, it doesn’t seem to have changed all that much from the hight of lockdown. I’m still not keen to go out where there’s crowds, wear a mask where there are crowds and use my hand sanitiser or wash my hands endlessly.

Previous fun activities such as visiting National Trust properties, going to museums, just don’t seem that fun any more and I do wonder how this is going to affect archives. Are those ‘hard to reach’ groups going to become even more further away?

Archive Path #Archive30

A path surrounded by trees going into sunlight. Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

April is Archives 30 month, an initiative started by ARA Scotland and now an annual highlight on archives twitter.

The theme is Archive Path, and this made me think about the path that I am on my career. Really, I suppose I’ve been on it for 25 years, which has surprised me! My first ever job, aged 16 (thanks mum) was as a medical records clerk in a hospital. I was digitising medical records to be stored on CD and sending off microfilmed notes to be scanned too.

This job financed my sixth form and undergraduate degree, and when I needed a job afterwards was also my full time employment – this time as a clerk in a medical records library. I was dealing with the new Data Protection Act and consent releases of information to other hospitals, pulling notes, trained on a very early digital system PAS, running clinics.

By this point I had worked for the NHS for nearly 8 years and as a graduate applied to their graduate scheme and was rejected. This final straw forced me to decide to go back to university to do the archives diploma. This wasn’t an easy decision as I had no money, but I managed to get a paid year contract at the University of Liverpool, became someone’s lodger and then applied to the Archives course.

This hadn’t been a smooth path as I had applied to another archives course and been rejected (despite my years of records management experience). The second time around, if I hadn’t been lucky to get funding in the last ever year it was offered, I wouldn’t have done it. And also done another masters (a requirement of the funder). Throughout this, I worked as a hall tutor for the University of Liverpool which paid my rent and fed me. I was lucky.

It makes me think about how things are today, where there is no funding. There is admirable work being done trying to get new paths into the profession, from the apprenticeship scheme to CPD registration for archivists and allied workers, but there is an element of privilege. The Archives profession isn’t alone, all jobs operate on some level of privilege, but it’s there and we don’t want to be a profession where the only people in it are those who can afford to be.

Yes I had to move constantly in the first 5 years of my career, and had my own share of sleepless nights over having no money or job, but I was able to move. I was able to be relatively agile in where that work was due to my age and having no dependents. I encountered few barriers, could cope with the hours of commuting until one day, I just couldn’t anymore. I could be flexible about what jobs I applied for and worked for a long time in Records Management and Information Assurance. And after a few years of fruitless job applications and interviews I finally got a job and was able to move (I hope) for the last time.

I guess the point of me writing this blog is to show people out there the experience of someone who on surface value has ‘suceeded’ i.e. got a permanent job as an Archivist. But no job is set in stone, and I have a further 20 working years ahead of me and who knows where I will end up before retirement! As I’ve got older and acquired a long term health condition, those barriers that seemed low 10 years ago have got considerably higher. It’s not just those starting out who can hit a roadblock.

If you are reading this feeling fed up, really FED UP about jobs all I can say is hang on in there. Keep applying, get another job whilst looking as transferable skills are really important, and keep applying. To people like me I also say, create the jobs, give a decent salary, even if you can do it for a year or six months only, give someone a chance to get that experience and take another step on the archive path. Hopefully one day they will overtake you.

To blog or not to blog

It has taken enforced isolation due to a pandemic (!) to make me realise that it is over a year since I last blogged on all things archival.

I have my excuses, including a big operation to improve my mobility – but really, 13 months break is a very long time!

A lot has happened work-wise since then as well, including another National Lottery project ‘Resonate’ which has taken over my life and eaten all my time.

I feel like I should say ‘Well done’ to past self for designing a project that is completely digital, seeing as so many projects and heritage sites are now dealing with the challenges of closure, but to be honest I’m not sure if a digital only project will keep to schedule with all that’s going on with the world at the moment.

I’m also not sure what place this blog has in my plans. I had started it when I started my L3 Digital Marketing (now achieved) and had a brief moment of glory with a christmas pie story but are people really blogging any more?

I have a few ideas about pulling links together to help people with accessibility and archives, and I’m the ARA East Midlands training officer so that could work . Any thoughts on any of this gratefully received!

Archives and the importance of authenticity

The closure of my local Patisserie Valerie (itself a taken-over version of local cafe firm Druckers) has made me wonder about how the evolving high street is being recorded at the moment. That is, where are the archives of these closing firms ending up? Hopefully not all shredded in the bottom of a skip.

Someone at the BBC has done a great job of asking the question “Who was Valerie?” of the famous cafe name, and sadly – no-one knows. And the firm’s foundation story of Madame Valerie setting up the first store on Frith Street in London’s Soho suffers for the fact there is no hard evidence in a company archive and in fact, Madame Valerie may not have existed at all.

This is SUCH a missed opportunity for the firm. An archive would have added the evidence for these claims and would provide so many other opportunities for sharing its 94 year history. Old photographs, recipes, films and past events are great hooks for marketing, PR and customer retention and make you stand out from the competition.

Look at Derby firm Birds Bakery – who have been reinstating past recipe favourites in celebration of their 100 year history. Not only has this got them in the papers but has given them a great way of surveying their customers to find out their preferences – there is no coincidence that the Derby Telegraph story of their history contains a survey about your favourite Birds product.

The current owner himself has said:

“Unfortunately bakers kept it all in their heads. No-one wanted to write their recipes down.

“So we’ve had to go back to some of the bakers”.

Derby Telegraph, Jan 15th 2019

I only hope that Birds are keeping the evidence of these conversations (Oral History project anyone?) and a certainly now writing the recipes down and keeping them safe.

The BBC story about Patisserie Valerie shows that thanks to electoral rolls, Post Office Directories and government air raid records some history can be corroborated – but surely it is good business practice to know where you have come from as well as where you are going to?

The first Critical Archives and Records Reading Group meeting

This looks like an interesting project, will be watching this one!

Cross Words

Hello again! I’m planning to update this blog a lot more over 2019 with information about projects I’m working on.

I’ve started co-convening a new reading group at UCL’s Department of Information Studies. The Critical Archives and Records Reading Group is a space for academics, professionals, archive users, volunteers and anyone at all interested in archives to come together to discuss archival practice in an intersectionality and critical fashion.

Debates about the role of archives and records in cultural, social and political processes are of long-standing. Since the early 2000s theorists and practitioners have confronted the ways in which they have served as ‘tools for both oppression and liberation’ (Caswell, Punzalan & Sangwand, 2017).  Subsequently approaches informed by postcolonialism, critical race studies, feminism, queer theory and deconstructionism have interrogated the role of archives and records in social justice and equity for marginalised and ‘symbolically annihilated’ communities (Caswell, 2016). Recent…

View original post 351 more words

Ashby de la Zouch and the largest Mince Pie in the World Part 4

Here we are at the 4th and final instalment of how Ashby de la Zouch came to have the largest mince pie in the world on the 15th October 1932.

This was all started by me seeing a commemorative plate for this event at Sharpe’s Pottery Museum, and wondering if it had indeed held a slice of this giant pie. I think we can be confident that it definitely did!

We last left the pie under protection from ne’er do wells in Ashby Cattle Market on a Friday night in 1932. By Saturday morning a “great crowd” had gathered to pay 2d admission to view it. The first cut was made by Mr. W.A. Lisney, and after much haggling with Mr. C.H. Parsons JP – was sold for £3 to Mrs. Lisney. That’s £152 in today’s money for one slice. No wonder people cheered at the bids!

The Birmingham Daily Gazette reported that “film photographers” shot the scene of the pie being served on special souvenir plates, and I found the film on the British Pathe news website, which can be viewed at this link.

Family cartons of mince pie were sold for 1s 6d each, or £4. And that secret prize for the first 500 purchasers mentioned in the Nottingham Evening Post? A voucher for a bottle of beer at a local pub. Does beer go with mince pie? Don’t think I’ll make the effort to find out…

But my prejudice against mince pies aside, the Birmingham Daily Gazette were thrilled to report “brisk business all day, plates continued to be sold at night and nearly all the pie was sold by 8PM”. No mention of the grand total for the Cottage Hospital though.

As an aside, whilst researching this story I discovered another mince pie related gem (I’m obsessed). On November 15th 1925, a 6 foot mince pie containing 2 cwt mincemeat was presented by J. Lyons & Co as a Lucky Draw gift for a fundraising concert at the Wigmore Hall in London. The charity in question was the Adair Wounded Fund who raised funds for entertainments in hospitals and it seems they had a bit of a reputation for trashing venues.

The pie was cut up for disabled guests by Jay Laurier, whose famous song was “I do like a nice mince pie” (do you Jay??). The Stage reported “the Fund again found itself in trouble, for the sticky mess everywhere was appalling” – and here’s the clincher-

“as on the same day a lobster, won by a patient, was straightaway eaten by the winner who disposed of the remains by shoving them away under his seat”.

Happy Christmas everyone – and remember the leftovers go in the brown bin, not under the sofa!!

Ashby de la Zouch and the largest Mince Pie in the World Part 3

I am hoping that some of you are return readers, eager to know what happened when Ashby de la Zouch exhibited the world’s largest mince pie at its 1932 Shopping Festival, a feat yet to be repeated.

In my last post, we left the giant “monster pie” (thanks Nottingham Evening Post) on its specially decorated bier, trundling through the streets of South Derbyshire on its way across the border to Ashby, and gathering crowds along the way.

However, before its trip, the buzz around the pastry beast grew louder and louder thanks to some marketing whizz feeding tidbits to the press. On September 29th the Nottingham Journal  announced that the pie would be cut at Noon on Saturday 15th October and the pieces auctioned. The pie was promoted in the Midlands press (but even getting as far abroad as Hartlepool!) as having enough substance for 2000 portions. On the 8th October, a mystery prize to the first 500 buyers of pie was announced in the Nottingham Evening Post. Lord Snowden, ex Chancellor of the Exchequer sent a message of support, reported in the same newspaper:

“Wise spending on necessary goods is very essential to help trade in the present depression. Buying stimulates production and keeps the wheels of industry running”

At some point, a fundraising genius had decided that the pie would be on view to paying members of the public prior to its first cut – 2d a look – the equivalent of 50p today.

With all this hype and fundraising, I began to wonder what the giant mince pie was for. It can’t have just been for the Shopping Festival? The Nottingham Journal came to the rescue again – it was being sold as the finale of the festival (starting on the 8th October) in aid of the Ashby Cottage Hospital. This only gets mentioned once; journalists were more excited about the 2,000 souvenir plates being made by Church Gresley firm T.G. Green’s.

By the evening of Friday 14th October 1932, the pie had made its journey to Ashby’s Cattle market, and sat guarded by watchmen “in case of theft or a practical joke” (thanks Nottingham Evening Post). Though who would have the transport to steal over a tonne of pie? Seeing as the UK was in the grips of depression in 1932, it was probably more likely a hungry family or two would try to have a nibble!

To find out what happened once ‘Mince Pie Day’ dawned, follow me on twitter for the next blog post announcement!