At the beginning of the first lockdown – just over thirteen months ago – I was nearing the end of my MA in Archive Administration at Aberystwyth University and had just made the decision to ride out the pandemic in the UK instead of going home to Canada, much to the annoyance of my parents. I was unemployed, my classes had finished and my volunteer role at the National Library of Wales had been cancelled after only two weeks as the whole world shut down.
All of a sudden, I found myself with a lot of free time. After so many years of full-time studying and part-time work, it felt really strange to not be rushing toward the next deadline or finishing a task only to jump straight onto another one. But I was determined not to waste this newfound free time. I immediately enrolled in online courses, scheduled a project management exam that I could take from the comfort of my student residence and started the hunt for remote work or volunteer opportunities.
As luck would have it, my then-boyfriend volunteered with Age Cymru Dyfed and had heard about a new archival project that the charity was working on. He helped me arrange a meeting with the project lead – over the phone of course – and about a week later I started volunteering with the West Wales Veterans’ Archive (WWVA).
This project began in April 2020 amidst the growing uncertainty of the first lockdown. Its aims are to support veterans in Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire and help them share their experiences of military service through the online archive, preserving their stories for the future. In addition, the WWVA connects older veterans with younger veteran interviewers and even helps them to learn the digital skills needed to conduct interviews or simply stay in touch with friends and family throughout the pandemic.
When I started volunteering with the project, seven veterans had already shared their memories of military life. Their stories were rich, diverse and truly fascinating, and it was my job to make them available for others to read and enjoy through the People’s Collection Wales. This meant proofreading each account and uploading them to the website with the relevant metadata. But after a few months, we decided that the archive both needed and deserved a website of its own, and so it was that I started learning how to design and build that website.
I was uncharacteristically optimistic about the whole thing. I had used the Internet for most of my life, after all, and had even taken courses in digital history as an undergraduate which gave me a very basic understanding of HTML and CSS coding. How hard could it be to build a new website from scratch?
I can admit now that I was being hopelessly naïve. I had absolutely no idea what was involved in creating a modern website and I definitely overestimated my own technical abilities. Truth be told, I still struggle to use my mobile phone sometimes and I have had that for nearly four years now!
But I was determined. I read blog posts and online guides and more forum threads than I could count. I learned how to create mock-ups and how to use WordPress. I played with the settings for hours on end, trying different things to see what worked or what was just too difficult. The biggest help though was my then-boyfriend, a freelance web-designer and marketing specialist who helped me learn and even agreed to help me set up and maintain the site.
This arrangement came with its own challenges – as I am sure anyone who works closely with their partner can understand – but we were able to work together to create something that we are both proud of and can continue to improve over time. Not only that, but we supported each other through social isolation, dissertation stress and burnout from just doing too much at one time. But we succeeded and we launched the new website with great success.
The WWVA continues to grow and now holds the stories of 27 veterans, comprising over 200 photos, written memoirs, audio files, paintings and more. In the coming months, and hopefully years, it will expand and develop as more veterans share their stories and as additional features are added to the website.
While I am just as passionate about the project as I was a year ago and I am truly proud of my work in developing new skills during such an unusual time, I am far more proud of myself for finally understanding and, perhaps, more importantly accepting a few things that I should have learned a long time ago.
Through this process, I learned that I cannot do everything. While I learned about web design, I also learned that it is okay to ask for help when you are struggling. And it may have taken a global pandemic, but I have finally learned that I do not need to be busy every second of every day and to enjoy taking some time to just focus on myself.
Chiara Fallone, current student of Aberystwyth University, Treasurer ARA Section for New Professionals and Senior Library Assistant, Kitchener Public Library