In August of last year, I made the decision to hand my notice in at my admin assistant job, where I’d spent a year working after graduating from university with a degree in History of Art. It had taken a lot of thought, lots of discussions with friends and family to finally decide to take the plunge and do it so I could focus on my real interests: heritage and archives. After volunteering weekly at the unique archive of the Freud Museum and completing two brilliant week-long placements at the Guardian News and Media Archive and Jesuits in Britain Archive, I decided I’d like to pursue my goal of becoming an archivist. I was in the position to fully commit to volunteering for a few months whilst living at home so I could gain experience and spend some time in a variety of fascinating archives. I felt as if not taking this opportunity would be a mistake and I wanted to know for sure if this was the path I’d like to eventually take. I had learnt at this point that archive experience seemed to be the golden ticket for MA courses and traineeships alike.
Whilst at my admin job, my manager had kindly let me go part-time so I could spend Wednesdays volunteering at the Freud Museum. I was able to get to know the museum’s archives and collections through cataloguing a variety of materials such as photographs, records of the museum and the correspondence of Anna Freud’s secretary, Gina Bon. I began learning more about both the Freud family and the history of the museum itself, which was established in 1986 after Anna Freud had left instructions in her will for the house to become a museum. I catalogued the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic archives as well as the personal papers of psychoanalyst Elisabeth Loebl. What has been most interesting for me is watching stories unfold through correspondence and learning about the lives of others through their letters.
When I finished my job at the end of September, I began volunteering at three more archives, which have all been equally invaluable for gaining practical, hands on experience. Whilst at times it was overwhelming to juggle my voluntary roles at four very different and unique archives, I learnt so much about how archives are run and the common practices that unite them.
At Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, I was given the opportunity to list and repackage newly acquired records, learning to observe the original order and provenance of the material. I listed St Giles-in-the-Field’s School records, which were compelling in that they revealed so much about the development of the school and the challenges faced. I also listed 19th century property deeds, which expanded my rather limited (and typically millennial) knowledge of land and property ownership.
The Royal London Hospital Archives holds a fascinating and wide-ranging medical archive. During my three months of volunteering there, I helped catalogue and digitise their photograph collections by scanning and uploading them onto the online catalogue. It was a great opportunity to learn about the history and development of the hospital. I loved looking at the old pictures of the hospital and its staff, seeing how everything from uniforms to the hospital buildings and equipment has changed over the past 100 years. It was particularly fascinating to see photos of doctors and nurses working at the hospital in the early 20th century. Likewise, it was fun to learn more about the evolution of hospital staff culture, observing photos of staff socialising at the Three Feathers Club bar in the early 1970s, as well as the nurse’s swimming team holding their trophies in the 1950s. As well as cataloguing, I had the opportunity to help with research enquiries for the first time.
At Conway Hall Humanist Library and Archives, I assisted with the digitisation of nineteenth-century pamphlets, by writing summaries of them and short biographies of the pamphleteers. The Victorian pamphlets cover a variety of subjects from theology to suffrage, and I thoroughly enjoyed discovering more about the questioning, boundary-pushing individuals who created them. One thought-provoking pamphlet I worked on was ‘The Causes of Irreligion,’ a sermon by theist Charles Voysey, which examines the reasons people reject religion and consequently his criticisms of it.
All in all, my 3 months of intensive volunteering was extremely fruitful as not only did I feel I had gained fantastic experience, but it was also gratifying to know that I had, in a small way, contributed to the running of these archives. On top of this, I am so grateful for the encouragement and guidance from archivists I’ve worked alongside. I plan to start my MA this September and my time volunteering has been excellent preparation for this.