Adventures in Archiving: A Volunteer Perspective


As part of The People’s Cathedral Project we have been undertaking a very large project aimed at cataloguing, digitising and open our archives up to the general public.  Coming along for this journey have been a core team of volunteers who have really got stuck into the tasks in hand, here is just one of our volunteer’s story…


In the summer of 2016, I had just completed a part-time postgraduate diploma in information management, and I was on the lookout for an opportunity to apply some of my learning in a practical way. Information management is perhaps a fairly strange and vague term, but it is a close neighbour of the more familiar library and information studies. At its core, it is all about organising information, and my studies included everything from cataloguing, classification, building taxonomies and creating databases to researching and writing literature reviews for research enquiries. Having an affinity – some might say obsession! – with organising and classifying, I have always been interested in museums and archive collections but I had never really considered myself qualified to work in those fields. Now, I realised that information management was applicable to these areas, and the thought occurred to me to see if I could apply my learning in an archives environment.

I spotted a post on an archives mailing list asking for volunteers for a project at Guildford cathedral. Not knowing much at that time about the cathedral, I immediately imagined old dusty parchments and centuries-old liturgical paraphernalia. Of course, I very soon realised that this was a more unusual cathedral, built in the 20th Century, and therefore the chances of coming across an Elizabethan manuscript were slim (but not impossible, as I was to discover!). Nevertheless, I sent an email expressing my interest and a few short weeks later I was poring over some very unusual and interesting records.

The project archivist was amazing and helped me to experience the different kinds of work which take place in an archive. Most of my time was spent helping to catalogue various items, including photographs, kneeler designs, artworks, service booklets and correspondence. Slowly but surely, I built up a picture in my mind of all the people who had played a part in the cathedral’s construction. From the architect, Edward Maufe, to the artists who designed the sculptures and glasswork, all the way through to the lay staff who kept everything running smoothly and of course the people who came to the many varied services and events which have been held there. Whilst the kneeler designs and photographs were amazing to look at, the reams of correspondence were also very evocative in their own way, as they showed the meticulous planning and organisation which was required, not to mention the costs of such a huge project. Through examining and cataloguing all these disparate items, I realised that modern records can be just as interesting and historical as older ones, and that even the relatively recent past can still seem like another world in many ways.

As well as cataloguing, I also helped with the scanning of some of the items and the photographing and labelling of some of Vernon Hill’s amazing and imaginative sculptures – all important parts of making the archive accessible online.

I also had a chance to help out at the very successful archive study day, which was an opportunity for members of the public to view and discuss some of the archive items, and to hear about some of the work going on at other archives in the area.

I came to the Guildford Cathedral archive from an unusual angle, as my course was not specifically related to archives. It was therefore very useful to learn about archival arrangement and cataloguing, as well as to experience the archive documents first hand. However, I have also learned that a job in archives now requires a wider variety of skills than ever before, particularly technical skills in things like databases and content management systems which can be used to make the collection accessible to the wider public. It’s this mixture of the old and the new which is perhaps the most alluring thing about this kind of work. And, yes, there was indeed an Elizabethan document tucked away amongst all the modern records – a beautiful yet fragile breeches bible from the 16th Century. It seems the most valuable lesson to learn from working in archives is always to expect the unexpected!