Report from the North West
Thanks to Maria for the following report….
The North West group met on 7 October and had a wide ranging discussion on the subject of volunteers, interns and the impact of associated issues on the profession. It was generally agreed that it was important to differentiate between people volunteering as a social activity or as a contribution to society (social volunteers), and those volunteering in order to gain experience in order to become archivists.
The enormous contribution made by social volunteers to huge numbers of projects across the archive sector was acknowledged, but it was noted that such projects required input and commitment from a professional archivist. There is no way in which such volunteers could ever replace a professional archivist and we need to make sure that that is recognised. There was also a note of caution that some social volunteers can feel a very personal connection to the archives and their ideas and aims may sometimes be at odds with those of the archivist – a situation requiring tact, and one which can be avoided if the purpose of a project and the role of the volunteers are clearly defined right from the start (a luxury not always possible where volunteers are inherited or come with the archive).
From the perspective of those volunteering in order to gain experience, it was noted that people simply can’t afford to devote large chunks of time to volunteering. At a time when students are having to fund themselves through university, and benefits for unemployed people are increasingly limited, there are few people who can afford not to be earning money. It was suggested that volunteering was easier to manage (and combine with paid work) if it was one or two days a week. It was also felt that more emphasis should be placed on the quality and variety of work undertaken while volunteering, rather than the time spent. The idea that everyone needs to spend a year volunteering was felt to be misleading and has possibly grown out of the fact that few people go straight from their degree to an archive course, so, by necessity, have to wait a year. Some questioned why the universities insist on practical experience – is it to show your commitment, is it to ensure you really know what you’re getting in to, or does it benefit you while studying?
The issue of interns was discussed, and it was generally agreed that the recent ARA statement was helpful. There were, however, questions about how it would be enforced and who would enforce it, and as long as internships are mainly unpaid, the issues already discussed about finances remain. The idea of linking internships to places on university courses was floated, as a way of ensuring positive outcomes for the intern and reducing the chance of the intern simply being used as free labour.
From the perspective of archive services, there were strong feelings that they shouldn’t rely on volunteers of any kind to maintain their basic functions. The risk that professional archivists can end up spending all their time devising and managing projects, while volunteers do the actual work was highlighted. This state of affairs makes it easy to overlook the skills and experience the archivist brings to such projects, and we need to ensure that we don’t sell ourselves short – if we don’t value our own skills, we can’t expect others to. While it is a good idea to have a clearly defined document setting out what a volunteer can expect from an archive and what the archive expects in return, it was generally agreed that a ‘job description’, requiring specific skills, should come with a salary.
Our final, and rather gloomy, thought went back to the subject of money, and the very real risk that archivists in the future would be drawn from a small pool of those who could afford to go to university and work for free. If that were to be the case, we would miss out on a genuinely diverse and inclusive workforce.