Achieving a sustainable volunteer programme

Summary

Lancashire Archives has welcomed volunteers as part of an ongoing programme of volunteer projects for over 25 years. The volunteers group, drawn from across the county, is one of the longest standing groups in any archive, and the largest single volunteering group within Lancashire County Council.

The aims of the volunteer programme are to:

  • support the preservation, access and promotion of the archive collections
  • benefit the health and well being and quality of life of the local community and to provide opportunities for people to learn and develop through their lives

Volunteers are supported by a dedicated part-time Volunteer Support Officer (0.4fte) who supervises their work and provides induction training.

Scope of the volunteer programme

The archive service has a number of groups of volunteers comprising volunteers who have retired, volunteers in part-time employment, volunteers seeking a return to work after a period of illness, volunteers with a disability, students on vacation and two supported and sheltered work placements - one of whom is a young man who has been volunteering twice a week for five years. In addition to these groups, there are also several home-working volunteers.

The archive service also offers a number of work experience placements each year where volunteers can develop skills to train as archive professionals. A significant number of these volunteers qualify as archivists and three are currently studying for a postgraduate diploma at Dundee University.

The archive service has piloted two volunteering projects in the community, engaging local people with the archive collections relating to their areas while providing volunteers with opportunities to use their local knowledge.

Over the 25 years more than 230 volunteers have contributed to the programme and the archive service currently has 68 volunteers - of these, eight active volunteers have completed 25 years of service. In  the year 2012-2013 volunteers contributed 8202 hours of work - the equivalent to almost five full time members of staff.

Type of work

The volunteers carry out tasks that the archive service would otherwise not be able to resource and work on a number of different collection- related projects including:

  • will-flattening - a major probate preservation and indexing project lasting 18 years
  • indexing - asylum reception orders, coroners' accounts, Preston Guild rolls, census enumerator's returns, quarter sessions court's recognizance bonds
  • listing - 18th and 19th century family correspondence, local authority building plans
  • cleaning, scanning and repackaging glass sides

Volunteers also contribute more widely to the work of the archive service, helping out on open days and contributing to the monthly newsletter.

Securing commitment and supporting volunteers

The volunteer policy provides a formal framework, ensuring consistency in recruiting, training and organising work.

A formal agreement with each volunteer provides a clear idea of what to expect while volunteering at the archive service and secures the archive service a level of commitment and defines the boundaries in which a volunteer works.

The archive service supports volunteers in various tasks with training, including induction training, supervision and provision of resources. The archive service fosters an environment where there is mutual responsibility for the projects between staff and volunteers. This is achieved by involving volunteers in project development and where volunteers feel comfortable engaging in open discussion about any problems.

Outcomes of working with volunteers

Impact on the service

At Lancashire Archives volunteers:

  • have created over 300,000 entries on LANCAT, the online catalogue
  • are good advocates for the service
  • provide good news stories for the local media, raising the profile of volunteering and archives
  • nominated Anna Watson, archivist with responsibility for managing volunteers since 1988, for an MBE in New Year's Honours in 2011
  • were shortlisted, with 15 other teams out of an original 76 nominations, for a Lancashire County Council Pride Award in 2013

Impact on volunteers

Volunteering at Lancashire Archives has a positive effect on the quality of life and takes people on the five steps to mental wellbeing - connecting, being active, keeping learning, giving to others and taking notice. Volunteers:

  • engage more closely with Lancashire's Archive: 'This has been an absorbing activity. I enjoy the privilege of handling ancient documents and love the challenge of palaeography. It is really interesting to have an insight into the lives of our ancestors'
  • give something back to the community: 'I volunteer to play a part in the community and 'give something back'
  • keep active, learn and apply new skills and make new friends: 'It's a good social group and valuable to us older people to feel we are still doing useful work. Also set times like this give quite a lot of shape to the week'
  • feel valued and appreciated, enjoy celebrations and rewards: 'I always feel welcome and enjoy the work I do', 'Thanks for looking after us so well…I enjoy all your company, expertise and happy, smiling faces'

Staff attribute the ongoing success of the volunteer programme to the high level of commitment from volunteers and staff and the enjoyment which everyone derives from the experience.

Tips for working with volunteers

  • Collecting statistics and feedback from the volunteers is vital for demonstrating their impact
  • Communicate with volunteers: hold regular meetings where they can discuss any issues as well as receive updates about projects. Surveys allow volunteers to provide feedback anonymously
  • Take the opportunity to tell volunteers something interesting outside the scope of the current project
  • Listen to your volunteers - the archive service has a pastoral duty towards the volunteers to ensure their experience is a happy one and to support their health and wellbeing. Listening to volunteers is paramount in looking after them. For some volunteers it might be their only trip out in the week. Every detail is important, from ensuring they have the right sort of chair to sit on, all the tools and resources they need and that the task is equal to their abilities
  • Look for ways to make projects interesting 
  • Demonstrate and celebrate the value of their work with displays, newsletter articles and most important, parties

Developing the work in the future

  • The archive service has created a scrapbook for the 25th anniversary and this will be maintained as a record of the volunteers' work and commitment
  • The current project, listing Quarter Sessions Recognizance rolls, will continue to be supported by the volunteers for some years with smaller volunteer projects running alongside. Volunteers have the opportunity of moving to work on smaller projects on a temporary basis to add variety to their experience