Thursday, August 30, 2007

The question of archival professionalization: should there be volunteers in the archives?

I have now finished my summer placement at the small religious archive. As with many small archives, it suffers from having a terribly small budget which forces all sorts of stop-gap measures. One of these measures is the use of volunteers. This is a difficult subject for a professional. I would like to see (or at least see it throughly discussed) some kind of archives college or society, similar to a College of Surgeons, to license archivists in the same way that physicians and lawyers are regulated.

As I see it, one can make quite a good argument that permitting volunteers undermines the professional archivist. The argument against volunteers is that it devalues the skills and education of archivists (i.e. if I can train a volunteer to do 50% of the tasks at the archive in 2 weeks, why the hell did I spend two years during an archives Master's degree), it undermines arguments for reasonable compensation (e.g. if I can get a volunteer to do most of your job for free, then why should I hire you for $50,000 a year plus benefits?), and so on. On the question of status, I worry that having a volunteer (especially if they work in an important capacity) could imply that archival work is little but a hobbyist activity.

The argument in favour of permitting volunteers to work in an archive is a mix of pragmatic concerns and archival PR. If planned properly, having volunteers can raise the profile of a given archive and raise public awareness of same. Pragmatically, some tasks could be offloaded onto volunteers are effectively no cost. I think these are some of the reasons that public libraries so readily accept volunteers. Indeed, back in my high school days, I volunteered at the local public library (before it became mandatory in my province) and it eventually help me land my first job there.

What's the thinking out there on volunteers in archives? Only in small archives and then under certain conditions? I'm certainly curious to find out what others think about this issue.


Craig said...

In the archives section of the Australian War Memorial's Research Centre, we have a team of five volunteers, with usually one coming in each day (Mon-Fri) for a few hours. Most have been with us for many years (probably over 10), and they are part of the larger volunteer community at the Memorial (i.e. they also work in areas such as guiding in the museum and as information assistants).

I suppose I've never really considered the possibility that volunteers in archives can undermine the standing/status of the professionals. However I do understand the points made in the original post relating to the undermining of pay etc. At the Memorial I think we tend to take a broader view of our volunteers, as the original post suggested, the good public relations, the community service aspects of volunteering, and the tangible personal connections in that some of our volunteers are veterans of Australia's wars.

As far as duties go, we tend to utilise our volunteers in a fairly basic support role, doing simple tasks such as arrangement and rehousing, and basic preparation prior to handing over to we archivists. They sit with us in the office space, so we're always able to assist and supervise them. In some cases volunteers will do a little background research into the records for us, and sometimes the also do a bit of data entry where we might want to create indexes or the like to enhance access to certain records.

As a bit of background, I'd say we're a medium-size archive with a mixture of personal and official records (probably about 5 shelf kilometres worth). We are a very busy archive and get about 500 people coming into our reading room which includes the library. These range from the general public, to amateur historians right through to professional historians and government researchers.

We have a staff of 10 paid professionals (1 boss, four in Personal Records, five in Official Records). So the five volunteers effectively form one third of our workforce, however in man hours on the job this would probably only equate to say just one extra person, as they each work only a few hours per week.

Overall, I would definitely say our team of volunteers is an asset - they do alot of the basic preparatory work for us, which frees us professionals to do more of the value-adding work. I wouldn't think in our case they've undermined us pay-wise, as we've had pay increases in recent years and are about to put on another paid fulltime staff member. We've never really seen the volunteers as taking the place of a paid worker as such, more just as assistants. We could get by without them if we had to, but since they want to help us out, and offer to do so for free, we're happy to oblige.

Craig Tibbitts
Curator Official Records
Research Centre
Australian War Memorial

PS: Unfortunately they don't let us archivists call ourselves archivists here, we have to be 'curators'. Go figure...

Anonymous said...

This is a subject that pains me. I work in a small archives - I am the only archivist here - in fact, I am the only employee of the archives, responsible for absolutely everything.

It is hell.

Volunteers are a mixed bag - I have been desperate for them, so we don't have a big screening process, and unfortunately so many people think it will be "cool" to work in an archives, handling history, etc. I have had to take what I can get, which means a great deal of time must be spend educating some very well-meaning but clueless folk in the way of the archive. Then, when they don't get to do the "cool" stuff, and are stuck doing what amounts to joe jobs (SOMEONE needs to do some refoldering, or photocopying, or transcribing, or....) and get bored.

I think volunteers can work well in an environment where there is training and where the volunteers have some sort of knowledge of what an archives does. But when I have to take time to "train" someone to do something and answer questions, this ultimately takes away from my time, my workload increases, etc.

It has been very difficult too when I have approached those in my organization to let them know that I am having difficulty coping with a massive workload to be asked "Now, what about getting some more volunteers or student interns in?" Ugh. What about watching me completely burn out and begin to despise the entire profession, as all I can see is futility and half-assed work being done for years to come?

Unfortunately, my organization is experiencing severe budget cuts in all departments - so hiring another professional is not an option. It's an endless situation. If I could get some volunteers to stick around (knowledge of the collection is an asset whether you are a professional or a volunteer), that would be one thing, but as soon as students finish their degree, they are off, which is of course completely understandable. Still frustrating, though.