Meet the Volunteers: Lara Callaway on working with University of Sussex Special Collections

6 June 2018

‘I applied to volunteer at The Keep because after years of using archives as part of my university degree, I thought it would be invaluable to learn what goes on behind the scenes to make archives the amazing research tool that they are. As a cataloguing volunteer, my primary responsibility is recording and updating information for the archives onto a database, working primarily with photographs taken from the University of Sussex from the 1960s to the 2000s. This is incredibly interesting for me, as being a University of Sussex student, it means seeing how the campus has changed over those 40 years!

‘From each photograph, I find the most important documentable features and use them to create an accurate descriptive record that means it can be easily found by those undertaking research at the archive. This has given me an inside look at how archives work and allowed me the opportunity to work with some incredibly interesting historical documents.

‘Not every week is the same, however, and exciting jobs often pop up that are outside of your volunteering area. For example, I am also working on correspondence between Rudyard Kipling and various other people, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Andrew Lang of Fairy Book fame. I have the responsibility of organizing and identifying their documentable features, as well as reading and enjoying them!

‘I’ve had the best experience at The Keep, getting to work with amazing documents and lovely people, and would urge anyone who is thinking about volunteering to do it.’

 

 

Meet the Volunteers: Tim Smith on recording iron sites on the Historic Environment Record

4 June 2018

‘We feel it important that the location of these sites be known to prevent destruction’

‘I began volunteering with the Historic Environment Record Office in 2016 to correlate Wealden Iron Research Group (WIRG) sites with those recorded in the Historic Environment Record (HER) database. The HER based at The Keep holds records of East Sussex and Brighton & Hove’s heritage. My role involves comparing the records held in the WIRG database with those held by the HER and cross-checking these against primary and secondary sources.

Tim working on the HER at The Keep

Tim working on the HER at The Keep

‘I am a member of the WIRG, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Past and current members use documented records and field-walking to record the locations of iron sites that date from the Iron Age to the 19th century. We have an online database of some 1,000 sites across the Weald of Sussex, Surrey and Kent. East Sussex has the greater number, with 686 recorded to date and we are still finding more.

‘I spend one day a week using ArcGIS mapping software to locate sites mentioned on the WIRG database. Having located a site, I search WIRG’s online bulletins and newsletters for any information about the site gained from previous field visits, as well as copies of the two ‘bibles’ of Wealden iron, Straker’s Wealden Iron published in 1931 and Cleere & Crossley’s The Iron Industry of the Weald 1995, which, now being out of print, WIRG have had digitised. At The Keep, I have access to the Sussex Archaeological Society publications as well as primary sources of information, such as historic maps through the East Sussex Record Office, which together enable me to check and add information to the HER records.

A typical Wealden blast furnace, copyright WIRG, 2018

‘We have few extant remains of furnaces on the Weald, the main evidence for sites being slag – the waste material from iron making – and the bays (dams) that held the ponds for the water-powered blast furnaces and refining forges that first arrived in 1490. We feel it important that the location of these sites be known to prevent destruction, or, if to be lost, that a full archaeological survey be completed prior to undertaking modern work.

‘I started volunteering after retiring from my job as editor of a steel publication and found the work ethic at The Keep familiar to me, even to the extent of having to complete a Health & Safety assessment to use the computers. But I do dispute the answer to the one and only question marked wrong – a backpack is far better than a luggage trolley to carry a laptop in!’

To view and download the publications from The Wealden Iron Research Group, please visit www.wealdeniron.org.uk.

The Keep will be hosting a talk by Jeremy Hodgkinson, Vice-President of the Wealden Iron Research Group, on 10 October 2018. Further details will be posted on the events pages of our website nearer the time.

Meet the Volunteers: Diana Hansen, Secretary and Trustee of the Friends of The Keep Archives (FoTKA)

1 June 2018

‘Volunteering at The Keep is completely different from what I normally do. It’s intellectually challenging, absorbing, personally rewarding – and very worthwhile as well.’

‘I completed a History degree at Sussex University in the 1960s and went on to work for the Civil Service in the Treasury and then the Ministry of Defence. After retirement, we came back to Brighton and I decided to do an MA in History. This included a course on palaeography taught by Christopher Whittick, now County Archivist at East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), which is based at The Keep. Naturally I became interested in archives, and Christopher, well, he’s a very persuasive man! Before long I became one of his volunteers at ESRO in Lewes. I’m currently working on the archives of the Ashburnham Estate. I especially enjoyed cataloguing sketchbooks of a Grand Tour to Italy, Greece and the Middle East, with fine portraits of exotic warriors and elders enjoying a shisha. Before that, I worked on letters from Louisa, a daughter of the Elphinstone family of Ore Place, and her quarrelsome husband Robert, finding out much about the family in the process – how their fortunes went up and down and how they ended up living cheaply in Europe like many poverty-stricken aristocrats of the time. It was entertaining stuff!

‘I joined the Friends of East Sussex Record Office as a trustee ten years ago. Now my roles at FoTKA have changed slightly. I’m Secretary and Trustee – it sounds onerous but it isn’t. I inherited from the late Pam Combes the editorship of the six-monthly newsletter, which is something I can do from home, while being a Trustee involves attending four meetings a year, ensuring agendas are relevant and that minutes are written up.

‘Friends of The Keep pay a moderate membership fee and this goes towards financing new acquisitions for the archive – they might be postcards, documents, letters, maps – costing anything from £10 to £1,000. Recently, the unique collection of lantern slides detailing the construction of Beachy Head lighthouse between 1900 and 1902 was purchased with funding from the Friends, together with contributions from other grant-giving bodies and residents of Eastbourne – it was a good example of a community working together. If you’re interested in East Sussex and its historic buildings, becoming a Friend brings excellent benefits. We organise privileged visits to houses and places of interest which are often not open to the general public, accompanied by speakers with unrivalled knowledge of the area.

‘Much of my volunteering is done in the autumn and winter; I try to come to The Keep every other week for a morning or so. I also love sailing so I’m usually doing that for six weeks in the summer – my FoTKA colleagues have been known to panic when I haven’t answered an email for several days! When I was at the Treasury and MOD, I loved working with the army and meeting all sorts of different people and this happens here, too. Friends of The Keep come from many different backgrounds but we all share a love of the history and buildings of East Sussex. I hope more people join us!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman

For more information about the Friends of The Keep Archives, including details of how to join, please visit the FoTKA website.

Meet the Volunteers: Emily Manser on Recording Remembrance and the Brighton War Memorial

3 April 2018

I have been volunteering at The Keep since November 2017. I wanted to volunteer was because I have always loved learning about history and believe that in order to understand our present, we must learn about our past. At The Keep I have the opportunity to help preserve that history so it is available for years to come.

Extract from the Brighton Herald, 23 February 1918

Extract from the Brighton Herald, 23 February 1918

The project I have been working on is Recording Remembrance, which focuses on locating and recording war memorials in and around East Sussex. While looking through copies of the Brighton Herald on the Royal Pavilion & Museums Digital Media Bank for mentions of war memorials, I came across an interesting article (pictured right). It described how the parents of a fallen soldier received correspondence from a lady in Occupied Belgium, four months after his death. The parents were Reverend William Teesdale Mackintosh and Ethel Lawrence Mackintosh of Alfred Road, Brighton; their son was Second-Lieutenant Douglas Fraser Mackintosh of the Royal Field Artillery, attached Royal Flying Corps, and the Belgian lady provided a detailed account of his heroic, yet tragic, death. The following is a partial transcription of the text published in the Herald on 23 February 1918;

‘Two British airmen were brought down in Occupied Belgium,
after a gallant fight with seven of the enemy. The German
aviator who claimed the victory descended close to the spot
and said: “What a pity! They were such heroes! They could have
escaped but preferred to die fighting. Never have I met with
such resistance before.” The Two heroes were buried with
military honours.’

The other soldier mentioned was Second-Lieutenant W R Bishop (pilot); they died on 2 October 1917. Second-Lieutenant Douglas Fraser Mackintosh was 27 years of age.

If the story tells us anything, it’s that even in a time of great suffering and horror, there were acts of compassion and respect, even between enemy and ally. At the end of it all, no matter what side they were on, they were all just men thrown into a war that no one fully understood.

Our aim with the Recording Remembrance project is to link people with memorials and fortunately, upon further research, I was able to do this for Second-Lieutenant Douglas F. Mackintosh. His name, along with 2,599 others, 3 of which were women, is inscribed on the Brighton Memorial on the Old Steine. The memorial stands at the north end of the gardens. Built in the style of a Roman water garden, it features a large memorial pool. A fountain in the centre of the pool provides a sense of calm, something that would have been severely lacking on the battlefields of France and beyond.

At one end of the pool stands a U-shaped colonnade made from Portland stone. In the centre of the colonnade there is a semi-enclosed space and within that space there is a stone altar table; a place for remembrance and contemplation. This area is crowned with a small stone dome.

At the north-west and north-east corners of the colonnade, standing like guards at their post, there are two bronze pylons. It is here where the names of 2,600 servicemen and women of Brighton who fell during the First World War are inscribed. Their names forever etched in history. It is memorials like these that stand as a testament to all those who fought and all those who fell in service to their country. That is why we, with the help of the public, are working to find and record all the war memorials in East Sussex; to ensure that the names of those who served and their sacrifice is never forgotten.

We will remember them.

The Recording Remembrance project was established in 2014 to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. Its purpose is to record all of the memorials located in East Sussex and Brighton & Hove. Currently there are 832 memorials listed by the Imperial War Museum on the website, however many of these have missing information. We are asking members of the public and local history groups to record information on war memorials in their area, including the location, condition, form and inscription. Once the data has been collated, it will be added to the county’s Historic Environment Record.

Information relating to people named on war memorials, such as name, age, regiment and burial place, can also be added to the Recording Remembrance website. Person records can then be linked to their respective memorials, allowing researchers to find out more about individuals.

With the centenary of the end of the First World War fast approaching, we are asking as many people as possible to get involved with recording the county’s memorial heritage.

Further information can be found at http://www.recordingremembrance.org.uk/help

 

Meet the Volunteers: Sam Allen, Beyond Boxes ‘buddy’

30 November 2017

‘When I began volunteering for the Beyond Boxes project, I did not know what to expect. However, I have since learned that it is about far more than helping service users with registering or using our services at The Keep. The Beyond Boxes project allows people to explore their own stories, histories and interests, with a helping hand nearby should they need it. As a volunteer, I feel enriched by my time spent at The Keep, not just in terms of guiding users through how to use the catalogue or interpret historical documents, but also in getting to know our users and their stories.

beyond_boxes_logo_final_gold

I believe the key to encouraging access to the collections at The Keep is getting to know our users, by exploring what they are looking for in the archives or simply by listening to their stories. Everyone who comes to The Keep has a story or is looking to fill in the blanks of one, be it of their family history or to aid academic research. In this way, I believe that the Beyond Boxes project sits hand in hand with Mass Observation. It appears that people are increasingly looking to inform their own knowledge of the past. As a matter of observation, it is interesting that people of our time are interested in looking back as the world is getting bigger through technology. As part of that process, I am more than glad to lend a hand where I can in helping people to find and record their stories, even if that simply means showing them how to access software on a computer or helping hunt around the Reference Room for a book or index.

Buddy volunteer Sam Allen, right, with David Dent, senior IT instructor at Blind Veterans UK, in the Reference Room at The Keep

Buddy volunteer Sam Allen, right, with David Dent, senior IT instructor at Blind Veterans UK, in the Reference Room at The Keep

Recently we welcomed a group from Blind Veterans UK to The Keep, and their enthusiasm for our collections and resources was warming and enlightening. In a recent acquisition to meet user needs in terms of accessibility, The Keep has installed a wide range of IT equipment designed to enlarge, filter and enhance our digital resources to meet the needs of visually impaired or partially sighted users. It was exciting to hear what the Blind Veterans group thought of these new innovations, and it was also an education for the buddies and staff present. The whole day was a great experience for everyone involved, as tales of lost relatives and past experiences were shared and explored. Better still was that these endeavours were led by the Blind Veterans themselves, all of whom I hope left us with a healthy appetite for what The Keep offers (beyond the inter-session tea and cake). Many that I spoke to eagerly shared their plans to return.

My hopes as a volunteer and participant in the Beyond Boxes project is to share and reflect the excitement that our users bring with them to The Keep, particularly those who may not normally seek out our services. Often, it is in the experiences of these users that the most interesting stories are found. These contemporary voices shape our local and cultural history, and each and every one deserves to be heard, recorded and celebrated.’

If you would like the support of a ‘buddy’ volunteer to access the technology in use at The Keep, please contact us by email (thekeep@eastsussex.gov.uk) or telephone (01273 482349) to make an appointment. If you are interested in volunteering as one of our buddies, please email Suzanne Rose (Suzanne.Rose@sussex.ac.uk).

 

 

Meet the Volunteers: Julia Wacker, volunteer for the German Jewish Collections

4 October 2017

‘The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there’, Gandalf (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings)

‘I wanted to get out of my daily routine, even if it was just for two months. I’m doing a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Besides my studies, I work as a student assistant at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. My weekdays include a three-hour commute between my hometown and Berlin.

Julia at work in the conservation studio

Julia at work in the conservation studio

The Erasmus programme gave me the opportunity to do the required internship for my Master’s programme in another country. As I wanted to polish my spoken English, Great Britain was my first choice. I contacted many institutions all over the country and The Keep responded with interest. As my native language is German, the German Jewish Collections held by the University of Sussex were a perfect fit. After organising the flights, lots of paper work, a small language test and finding accommodation, I was able to start my little adventure.

My first day at The Keep was 31 July. Everyone here is welcoming and very friendly, and speaking English all day turned out not to be that difficult. I was amazed when I realized how many different types of materials are held here: maps, photos, newspapers, prints – and many more. Considering all the different projects people are working on, I also found it surprising how well staff get on with one another.

I was shown around the whole building, which includes the reading room, the repository for all the stunning archival material, the digitisation suite and a lot more. I got to see the University of Sussex campus, including the library, where I worked for a week. I joined a number of workshops, helped at The Keep’s Open Day and attended a conference, Digitising the Past: Revealing Jewish History, at the London Metropolitan Archives . I also got an insight into some of the other collections, such as the Mass Observation Archive and, for a special treat, learned how to bind my own book in the conservation studio.

Regina Mallachow's diary, SxMs 170/3/2/8, which was transcribed by Julia

Regina Mallachow’s diary, SxMs 170/3/2/8, which was transcribed by Julia

The family collections of the German Jewish Collections include really personal mementoes, like watches and Poesiealben (friendship books). During my time at The Keep, I worked continuously on various things. I transcribed a German diary written by an 18-year old girl in 1884 from old German script into modern script, which was sometimes quite difficult because of the handwriting. I enjoyed that very much, because it contained a lot of gossip about a ‘Mr Springer’ and I wanted to know if they became a couple in the end – they didn’t, because ‘Mr Springer’ paid no attention to her. I also processed many digital images of archives so that they can be made accessible to The Keep’s users. Further, I boxed and described books about Rudyard Kipling, and repackaged and listed a new donation for the German Jewish Collections.

All in all, it really was the right decision to leave my shell and to go for an internship abroad. The Keep is full of lovely staff, fascinating materials and many mysterious stories about people from another time that are there to be explored. I will also really miss the gorgeous tea.

Meet the Volunteers: Friedel Hermann, translator

6 June 2017

‘Translating is a compulsive activity. You enter into the personality of the writer and delve into the whole social and historical context’

‘I’m a proper hybrid. I was born in Namibia (previously a German colony, South West Africa, to which my grandparents had emigrated before the First World War) of German parentage and had English schooling, but including the language Afrikaans (Cape Dutch), so life from childhood was bilingual. As an adult, I moved to Cape Town, raised a family, and studied part-time at the University of South Africa, eventually qualifying as a Sworn Translator, which sets high standards of accuracy and confidentiality. I am registered with the Supreme Court & Hague Convention and have been engaged in professional work for state departments, lawyers and publishers in Europe and South Africa for decades. Now I’m semi-retired but still do some work from home.

‘Some years ago, I was approached to translate a collection of family letters in German, originating in Austria just before and during WWII. They were addressed to a young girl who had been sent to England with the Kindertransport; I helped arrange them into a book for the descendants, who no longer spoke German, so that they could re-establish the family chain. I started taking a personal interest in that particular historical period and when I moved to the UK some years ago, it struck me that I might use my skills here, too. However, it was only last year that I found an email address on the internet and contacted Diana Franklin at the Centre for German-Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex and offered to do voluntary work. She handed me on to Samira Teuteberg and I quickly felt involved, especially after a tour of the archives.

‘My first tasks involved the translation of some correspondence in the Ehrenberg Papers, originating in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, which revealed quite a lot about the social position of middle-class German Jewish women at the time. They were usually expected to marry men their parents had picked for them; in general, they were apparently happy with the arrangement. This came as quite a surprise to me. Recent work dealt with the Federmann family of Berlin and included identification documentation for a corpse in the First World War which was repatriated to the cemetery in Berlin.

‘I’ve also been working on letters from Germany dating from just after the Second World War, when people could reconnect. I felt moved by these exchanges, particularly where non-Jewish family friends tried to explain how caught up and terrified they themselves had been by the criminal regime, and that they were helpless witnesses when close friends were detained and transported to concentration camps.

‘Translating is a compulsive activity. You enter into the personality of the writer and delve into the whole social and historical context. I’m learning all the time, which I love. Some texts are disturbing, but I keep a clinical mind and concentrate on relating facts accurately.’

Interview by Lindsey Tydemann

 

 

Meet the Volunteers: Jan Boyes, ESRO cataloguing volunteer

3 June 2017

‘You often find with volunteering that one thing leads to another…’

‘It’s wonderful to have an archive, but not so wonderful if people can’t find anything in it! I hope that’s where I come in.

‘I’ve always been interested in history and all the “old stuff” that goes with it, so became a Friend of the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) several years ago. This was when the Office was based at The Maltings in Lewes. Volunteers were needed to create a computerised index for the thousands of wills which were kept in the archive. At the time, anyone wanting to find a will had to hunt through the indexes in large dusty books before they could find and order the one they wanted.

‘Going along to The Maltings on Tuesday evenings and inputting the information from the indexes onto an Excel spreadsheet became a regular routine and something I enjoyed very much. There were usually four or five of us, some working on different projects, and we became quite a tightly-knit group. It seemed natural to continue as a volunteer once ESRO moved to The Keep and since then I’ve had a variety of work, all of it interesting.

‘At one time I was cataloguing a collection of records of Piddinghoe, the tiny East Sussex village which lies on the river Adur between Newhaven and Lewes. That was quite sad as it had been the lifetime’s collection of a fellow ESRO volunteer and personal friend Valerie Mellor, who had died suddenly. She left the archive to ESRO and two archivists travelled to her home to pick it up; there were documents, postcards and images plotting the history of the whole village. It’s a really wonderful resource, and now available to visitors to The Keep.

‘More recently I’ve been using spreadsheets again, this time archiving the records of Humberts, an estate agent in Lewes. This is a twentieth-century collection of thousands of local sales particulars and correspondence relating to property purchases. I’m putting the basic information onto an online spreadsheet so an individual can search by date or by property name or address. It’s a straightforward process but still quite absorbing.

‘I quite often come to The Keep on a Monday, when it’s closed to the public. This is the only time when the map table in the Reading Room has nothing on it, so it’s the ideal opportunity for myself and senior archivist Anna Manthorpe to unroll and examine some extremely large maps recently received from Hastings Museum. Anna inputs a description onto the spreadsheet while I read out the references, re-roll and tag. It’s not quite as exciting as you might think. The maps are mid-twentieth century and show proposed locations for public amenities – gentlemen’s toilets for example – but they are important to keep as they show council landholdings as well as sites of water, gas and sewage pipes. Once it has been listed, each map is given a tag and number, re-rolled and stored in the repository in a bespoke linen map bag.

‘You often find with volunteering that one thing leads to another and you get the thrill of discovery. Working on the East Sussex wills was particularly good for this. I came across a man called Fox whom the will register described as a “comedian”. I thought that was quite unusual for 1790 so I investigated further and found that Fox and his wife and children were actors, and had run pubs and theatres in Brighton and London. His daughter Elizabeth was the mistress, first, of the Earl of Egremont, by whom she had four children, and then the Prince Regent, by whom she had one. She sounds like a remarkable person and I hope to find out more about her.

‘The main purpose of all this volunteering, as far as I see it, has been to make the archives not only available, but easy to search – and find. It’s a weekly commitment that brings many rewards and constantly changing interest. The archivists themselves appreciate you, too!’

Jan’s article on the Fox family can be found on the Friends of The Keep Archives website, in the Spring 2012 edition of FESRO News.

 

 

 

 

Meet the Volunteers: Brian Nash, conservation volunteer

2 June 2017

‘We love coming in and have formed long-lasting friendships with others in the group’

The newspaper archive is one of the most popular and widely used resources at The Keep – and it keeps on growing. Last year, approximately 437 bound volumes of local papers dating from 1831 to 2003 were transferred from Hastings and Battle libraries to The Keep. Brian Nash, a volunteer at The Keep, has begun making bespoke boxes and packaging for each of the volumes, which will protect them from damage and preserve them for the future. He talks to Lindsey Tydeman about his work on the Hastings newspapers and about his wider role as a volunteer with the archive.

‘I was taught to make boxes by The Keep’s Head of Conservation Melissa Williams and now I, in my turn, am teaching others! Today I’m working on a bound volume of the Rye Observer from 2001-2002. I take the measurements of each volume and transfer them to a plan on a piece of card, scoring along the folds before cutting out and folding into shape. Once the volume is inside the box, the box is tied with thick tape. I’m a quick worker but it depends on the size and shape; these are large so I’ll probably make six today. It would be nice to read the newspapers which are going into them but there’s no time for that!

‘Before retirement I worked for Brighton and Hove City Council as a care officer looking after people with dementia. My wife, Jennifer, managed the Search Room at the East Sussex Record Office, based at The Maltings in Lewes. She encouraged me to join her in the office every other week – Thursday evening was known as ‘Volunteers’ Night’ – where several groups worked on different projects. I was involved with transcribing the East Sussex Baptism Index, transferring baptismal records from 16th century church registers in Rye on to cards and creating a card index. Even in normal circumstances this would have been a challenge as the writing of that time isn’t easy to read, but an added complication was the fact that at least ten per cent of births in Rye at this period were to French immigrants, whose names were recorded phonetically or scribbled down quickly by the English parish officials. Sometimes these officials didn’t even bother to try and write the surname but simply recorded the family as ‘French’ or ‘Frenchman’. That accounts for so many people with the name ‘Frenchman’ living in the Hastings area today!

‘When Jennifer and I retired we decided come over from Shoreham once a week to volunteer in Conservation. We knew about the planned move of the Record Office to The Keep, so started work on the thousands of documents which had to be cleaned and packed before this could happen. All of them were filthy and we had to wear masks and protective clothing before tackling them. The whole process took about two years, finishing just in time for our move here.

‘Since then I’ve concentrated on making boxes for a whole variety of archives stored at The Keep. It’s repetitive work but never boring as the archives themselves are changing constantly; you never know what’s going to turn up next. Recently I made a box for the earliest document we hold, a seal and charter of Henry I. It was dated 1101 – I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hand! Then there were scores of boxes which had to be made for the glass plate negatives of photographs from The Argus. My local knowledge of Brighton proved invaluable here as many of the photographs came without identification, and I could help the archivist identify the places and buildings featured. I also enjoyed being involved with the conservation of the WW2 Book of Remembrance for St Peter’s Church in Brighton. That is beautiful.

‘I’ve lost track of the documents which have passed through my hands in Conservation. If I had been a student I would have taken notes of them all, but, of course, as a volunteer you don’t think about doing that. What we do know is that very little of this work would get done without us. We love coming in and have formed long-lasting friendships with others in the group. All you need is a common link; ours is an interest in local and family history and all the ‘old stuff’ that goes with it!

The collection of East Sussex newspapers at The Keep dates back to the middle of the 18th century, while those for the Brighton area start with the early editions of the Brighton Herald in 1806. The bound volumes recently transferred from Hastings include the South Eastern Advertiser, Hastings and St Leonards Observer, and the Hastings and St Leonards Pictorial Advertiser. The earliest is the Hastings and Cinque Ports Iris; St Leonards Chronicle or Sussex and Kent Advertiser, 1830-1831. Details of these and other newspapers in our archive can be found in our online catalogue and in our Guide to Newspapers. There is also a paper copy of the listing that can be consulted in our Reference Room.

 

 

 

Meet the volunteers: Monica Birchall, volunteer for Mass Observation

1 June 2017

‘Volunteering provides a wonderful opportunity to mix’

‘I’ve volunteered in many situations and until recently, I was a volunteer with CAB, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, counselling people on debt. But that was very stressful. This is different; it keeps my mind going and has put my life in perspective.

‘When my husband died I decided to do a part-time degree which then turned into a Master’s in Life History and Oral History. My primary research resource was the material in Mass Observation (MO) at the University of Sussex; I was overwhelmed by its depth and range. I fell in love with it! So much of the general history we read deals with the “great and the good” but these were the words of ordinary people, describing their lives and giving their views.

‘That was over six years ago. After finishing my MA, it seemed natural to apply as a volunteer for Mass Observation and I’ve been driving here from my home in Crowborough once a week ever since. The work? Well, I could be doing something as basic as helping with mailouts, or sorting through recently donated archives, removing paperclips and staples, or wrapping photographs.

‘Most of my day, however, is spent at the computer. When we receive replies to directives or special reports, it’s my job to input the basic data into the catalogue, such as titles, keywords and writers’ numbers, so researchers can see at a glance which directives specific writers have responded to. It’s not too technical and you don’t need an academic background to do it; however, you do need to have computer skills. Like many people, I found, when I returned to the workplace – albeit as a volunteer – that I needed to do a basic computer course! When I started here I thought that the older MO writers would be sending in handwritten responses while the under fifties would send emails, but no. There are writers in their nineties who prefer computers, and some in their twenties who use pen and ink. Maybe they sit at a screen for work all day and this is a form of light relief! I enjoy reading the handwritten responses, though; it gives a further layer of personality to the writer.

‘Volunteering provides a wonderful opportunity to mix, and at The Keep there’s a large staff working on a diverse range of projects. I’m always chatting to younger people, to academics, or simply to other volunteers with an interest in social history. Feeling needed is always a good feeling, and when you’re over a certain age, it’s even better!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman