Digitising First World War Military Service Tribunal Papers: The National Archives (2012-13)

The aim of this project was to make more accessible papers from First World War Military Service Tribunals (MH 47) held at The National Archives by digitising the records and making them searchable by name through the online catalogue.

The Military Service Tribunals heard applications for exemption from compulsory military service from 1916 until the end of the First World War. Records from these tribunals complement many other First World War records held by The National Archives, which are already available online.

Funding for scanning and transcription work was met partly by The National Archives, with the other half of the funding being met by equal contributions from the Federation of Family History Societies and the Friends of The National Archives.

The first stage of this project saw a small team of six volunteers working with The National Archives' staff to go through the case papers to prepare them for conservation work and eventually scanning. Volunteers were recruited from a group who had previously worked on projects in the Collection Care department, which works with The National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) when working with volunteers. This ensured that the volunteers had good experience of handling original documents before starting the project.

The work included re-sorting the case papers into order, removing all pins and paperclips, inserting specialist paper wraps to help preserve the original documents, and adding new boxes to the collection. As the volunteers worked through the case papers, they were encouraged to note down any interesting cases they came across which could be used to publicise the project work in blog posts and on the project web page.

Challenges and opportunities

  • Maintaining the quality of the volunteer's work
  • Managing the flow of work to the volunteers and the provision of project materials - especially over the Christmas period
  • Handling and caring for the documents with regards to conservation needs
  • Balancing the needs of this project with the demands of other larger projects in terms of space, materials and expertise
  • Engaging volunteers with the records they were working on

Responding to the challenges and opportunities

  • Maintaining the quality of the work by providing full in-depth training to the volunteers, as well as written guidance and the occasional reminder
  • Being visible and working on the project in the same area, so that staff were able to answer any queries
  • Carefully monitoring the number of boxes for volunteers to sort through and keeping a stock of necessary project materials
  • Using staff resources to help on the project, to maintain the flow of work if volunteers were unavailable
  • Running a training session with a conservator for the volunteers to ensure that the documents were cared for correctly
  • The help of volunteers meant that the conservation team always has a sufficient supply of work, ensuring time and funds were used to maximum effect
  • Monthly project meetings involving staff from across The National Archives meant any conflicts between projects for space and materials could be resolved, ensuring a constant flow of both work and supplies
  • Engaging the volunteers in documents by asking them to note any interesting case studies in a journal to use in research and publicity about the project

What were the outcomes?

  • Volunteers were responsible for the checking, re-sorting and preparing of 62 boxes of case papers (approx. 5,000 case papers)
  • Positive volunteer feedback:

'The flexibility on time to be worked suited me fine and sometimes working alone not a problem. Support on MH47 was exemplary with staff visiting the volunteer area each time I was there. The regular emails were also welcome.'

'I would say that this was a project which, although basic and straightforward, I found extremely interesting and would happily have given more time to it had I had time available. The keen interest of staff in, and enthusiasm for, the project was obvious and also appreciated.'

'I found it very interesting and informative and the demands and working conditions were ok for me! Training and staff support were fine and the project was informative and moving at the same time - we are a very lucky generation, when one thinks of what those blokes went through.'

What went well? What didn't go quite as well?

  • Volunteer engagement in the project, despite the repetitive nature of the work, was very positive with regular attendance and enthusiasm about the work
  • Working with volunteers who had previously worked on other projects at The National Archives was also a bonus but not essential
  • Volunteers working alongside staff and also alongside other volunteer projects proved successful in terms of support for volunteers
  • Ensuring regular communication, specifically by visiting the project volunteering area, was very important. This was also supported by regular email updates on the progress of the project, including after the end of the volunteering work
  • Encouraging volunteers to note down any interesting finds that they had come across while working through the case papers. Not only did this support the publicity of the project via blog posts and articles but it provided the volunteers with an opportunity to engage with the records they were working through

Developing this work in the future

The project will support and add to the Centenary interest in the First World War. By digitising these records up to a further 10,000 names can to be searched with regards to the First World War era, helping both family history researchers and academic researchers understand more about the social impact of modern warfare upon society. As part of the collaboration with The Friends of The National Archives and The Federation of Family History Societies, we are also working to improve knowledge and awareness of similar tribunal records held nationwide, through a survey run predominately by members of the FFHS.

Find out more about the project.