The theme of the Australian Society of Archivists‘ 2015 conference was ‘Archives on the Edge’. Speakers spoke on a variety of topics derived from this theme: archives on the edge of extinction, the edge of great innovation, the edge of redefinition.
My colleagues and I chose to flip the term on its’ head and presented a panel on the role and impact of volunteers within the archival profession, and the challenges involved with entering the archival profession from the periphery – its’ edges, if you will. As new professionals, Christopher Stueven, Christine Holmes, Romney Adams and mysel
f discussed the experiences of volunteers within the Australian archival profession. The four of us had had extensive volunteering experience whilst undertaking studies in wildly varied organisations and different motivations.
The relevance of the topic and the issues presented with our profession’s reliance upon volunteers was made evident by the amount of participants who attended the session. The discussions within the room were wide-ranging and touched on a number of issues. It would be impossible to capture the discussion here and give credit to everyone for their individual contributions; I by no means aim to represent these opinions wholly as my own. This post will briefly highlight the issues that seemed to be of particular relevance to the Australian archival sector, before touching on the potential research project and best practice document that have come about as a direct result of this panel.
As a whole, the room acknowledge that in most cases volunteering represents a mutually beneficial and welcome exchange of free labor for occupational experience. All of the panel members stressed that their volunteering experiences had been invaluable in gaining the skills required in order to obtain employment within the sector.
Given the immensely positive impact that archival institutions could have upon volunteers and vice versa, it is disappointing how little information and research the panelists were able to find which illuminated the Australian context. Each of the panelists remarked upon the lack of research which identify the motivations of volunteers in the Australian archival sector, and as a profession we have little to no idea how many volunteers we have nor where they are. Without proper planning and a clearer idea of the people who volunteer in our sector, archives run the risk of wasting the time and resources of both the volunteer and the archive (Frevert, 1997).
We are a relatively small, young and unknown profession, we must therefore take good care of the volunteers that we do manage to attract (Leonard, 2012). Volunteers reinforce the ties between an archive and its’ public, and each volunteer represents an opportunity for the relationships between archives and their communities to be strengthened. Once we acknowledge the unique opportunities that volunteers represent, it is only logical that our profession invest time and resources in order to leverage these opportunities to our greatest benefit. Of course, just as a positive experience can lead to our volunteers becoming our public relations advocates, a negative experience can lead to critics within the communities which we serve. It is absolutely crucial therefore that volunteer programs be implemented strategically.
Main Issues Discussed
- Christopher Stueven stated that in his opinion Australia was behind in having these conversations, given that countries such as America and England have published great swathes of data, best practices and policies with regards to their volunteers, volunteering programs and volunteering initiatives. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the Global Financial Crisis impacted the Australian economy less severely than that of both England and America, and therefore have not had to have the same level of reliance upon volunteers.
- The room agreed that the Australian Society of Archivists and the archival community as a whole would benefit from a statement of ‘best practice’. A senior member of council who was in attendance suggested that the panel members draft such a document for the consideration of the council.
- In line with current literature, participants agreed that volunteers should never replace paid positions and should not do core business as this would weaken the position of the archive and potentially the profession as a whole. For many who have seen the profession of Archives elevated from being a Librarian in the 1960s, to becoming its own sector, de-professionalisation is something to constantly be guarding against.
- As Leonard (2012, p. 313) states: “The labor of a volunteer employee is not—nor should it necessarily be—without cost to the employing institution.” In fact, a number of participants in the session stated that at times volunteers demand more time and resources than they contribute, but that the intangible benefits of having volunteers (fresh insights, enthusiasm, connection to community, etc.) made this worthwhile.
- Romney Adams stated that there should be one point of contact for volunteers, and that this staff member should be selected based upon their interest in cultivating a rewarding experience for the volunteers.
- Given that archives in Australia have recently published a huge volume of archival material for the centenary of World War One, I stressed the importance of some sort of support system, even if a staff member just allows the volunteers to debrief over a plate of cookies in the tea room.
- Volunteer programs should be implemented strategically, i.e. as a means of demonstrating the value added by a particular service or product, in order to obtain the funding required for the position(s) to be paid – and maybe even result in a job for the volunteer.
- A source of frustration according to the majority of those in the room was the lack of a central point at which potential volunteers could register their interest in volunteering at archival institutions. It was suggested that such a portal would be invaluable, especially if volunteers could create a little profile stating what type of experience they were looking for, and alternatively archives could advertise for volunteers to help with specific projects or initiatives.
Researching and presenting on this panel made it increasingly clear that further research into the volunteers in the Australian archival and recordkeeping sector should be conducted. Currently efforts are being made to review relevant literature and draft a statement of best practice for the consideration of the Australian Society of Archivists. We are also in the process of compiling a list of questions to be included in a survey which is to distributed to, and completed by, as many volunteers within the archival sector as possible. If anyone would like to make any suggestions of what to include in the survey, please feel free to contact me through the feedback form included below. The survey will be based upon similar resources that have previously been developed, and members of the Australian Society of Archivists will be invited to contribute feedback and further suggestions through the ArchivesLive website.
While these informal conversations have been occurring for some time, we are thrilled to see them becoming more formal.
*A kind thank you to Sigrid McCausland for being an exemplary moderator, and to Chris Stueven for providing feedback on this post.
Leonard, K. B. (2012). Volunteers in Archives: Free Labor, But Not Without Cost. Journal of Library Administration, 52(3-4), 313-320.