Hello all, it’s Jen here, Digital Volunteering Project Officer for #CrowdCymru!
Here follows an update on the progress of our amazing digital archives volunteering project. We are funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and run jointly by Gwent Archives, Glamorgan Archives, and Cardiff University Special Collections & Archives. This is the third in a series of posts, the first is available to read here and the second here.
After a few technical issues, our digital platform was launched in February and I spent a very busy few weeks conducting online training sessions for our impressive community of local, national, and global volunteers. We had to accommodate time differences between international time zones as we now have members in the USA, Canada, Australia, and South Korea!
Most sessions were arranged in small groups, but I also offered one-to-one sessions and also carried out a few over the phone. Fortunately, thanks to the National Library of Wales, the platform is nicely user-friendly, and our volunteers had no trouble getting to work on our first collection, the Edward Thomas Archive. One of the main challenges has been deciphering his handwriting, but our valiant team has persevered and almost completed the entire collection of 474 letters/pages!
This rich personal archive of one of the lesser known First World War poets includes correspondence, original manuscripts, and typescript poems. Edward suffered acute depression throughout his life and letters to friends articulate his mental anguish in great detail. He enlisted in the British Army in July 1915, despite being a mature married man who could have avoided enlisting. Edward was killed in action soon after he arrived in France at the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917.
Thomas’s story has resonated with the group and members of our dedicated Facebook Group have been busy sharing information and related links concerning his life and work. Our volunteer Liz Davis discovered a geographical connection with the poet as her son manages a public house in Steep, Hampshire, where Edward lived. She has shared her knowledge of this with her son and he is now in touch with a local historian discussing ideas on how to celebrate this connection through Edward’s poems and the local walks he loved to take. All thanks to the project!
Liz has been kind enough to write up her experience of the project so far:
Being a volunteer with Crowd Cymru
One reason I joined Llandenny Women’s Institute was to get involved in the wider world after the isolation of lockdown and my own propensity to avoid social events and meeting new people. That sounds a bit mad as I had spent my working life meeting people every day and often in difficult circumstances – but somehow that was different.
When I saw the opportunity to get involved with Crowd Cymru – the project to transcribe and review the archives of people with a connection to Wales I thought it might be fun. The opportunity also gave a different perspective to the curation and fine arts course I was doing at Hereford College of Arts.
It is early days for Crowd Cymru, but I am already hooked! I would sum up the experience so far with three ‘P’s’ – patience, passion, and privilege. The first project is transcription of Edward Thomas’s archive. A poet and writer, friend of Robert Frost and died in France in WW1. It had taken a while for the team to be ready with suitable technology to make the archive available to us but that pales into insignificance at the need for my technical competence to catch up – that’s where the patience came in. But the task of transcribing also requires patience – the handwriting can be impenetrable and often requires a bit of detective work to decipher what is written. I am not known for my patience but suffice to say the words drew me in and I have relished the challenge.
The second P – passion – relates to the context and relationships that archives give us. A window on a world. My passion is to tell the stories of the people whose history is both absent and silent. Whilst many take on the genealogical challenge of tracing their family into the distant past, I have a passion for understanding their lives and livelihoods always with a focus on women. Crowd Cymru and the Edward Thomas archive consists mainly of letters to his wife Helen. I almost immediately disappeared down the rabbit hole of researching her and her life – be warned this work makes afternoons disappear and dinners left unprepared!
And that is where the third P comes in – privilege. What a special thing to be able to see into the intimate lives of people, their thoughts and love, their indifferences, and their passions. The first few transcription I have done relates to the mundane – questions about shopping and give us a sense of the ‘poverty’ but it still feels like a privilege to see them. I am now trying to decipher Edwards’ letters from France – written in pencil (now terribly faded) on wafer thin paper. I have not got far but knowing that these may be some of the last words he wrote I am moved and feel a deep responsibility to do the best I can.
This early activity has left me asking about archiving in the digital age – we have apparently to rely on exchanges of WhatsApp messages floating in the cloud – will someone someday be able to read and reflect on our archive?
Liz Davis [#CrowdCymru Volunteer] March 2023
Thank you so much to Liz for such an interesting and thought-provoking report.
The next collections our volunteers will be working on will most likely be two additional collections from Cardiff University Special Collections & Archives. For transcribing, the war time diaries of the Hon. Priscilla Scott-Ellis who volunteered as a nurse during both the Spanish Civil War and WWII. Her diaries range from 1934 through to 1941 and entries cover time in London during the Blitz. For tagging, the Cardiff University Institutional Memory Archive of photographs charting the history of the institution from 1883. Future collections will be another collection for tagging, the Newport Rugby & Athletics Club Photographic Archive from Gwent Archives.
I’ve also recently had the pleasure to present the project to lots of fantastic groups and societies including Digital Communities Wales, U3A Wales, Grangetown Local History Society, Glamorgan Family History Society , Newport City Council [Community & Regeneration, Digital Inclusion and Community Arts Departments] and Aberystwyth University [Online and Distance Learning, Information and Library Studies and Life Long Learning Genealogy Groups]. I also presented with Glamorgan Archives and Gwent Archives as part of their series of online public talks. I also attended a fantastic event at the Newport Riverfront Centre to celebrate International Women’s Day.
As usual, I’ve also been busy promoting the project via articles and quite a number have already been published, including Who Do You Think You Are Magazine, Archive & Records Association Members Magazine, Archives and Records Council of Wales, North American Welsh Newspaper [Ninnau], Welsh Society of Manitoba Newsletter, Glamorgan Family History Society Journal and the Newport & Gwent Literary Society.
Our social media platforms are going strong, and we now have just under 300 followers on our Twitter account, recently tweeting content for #GirlsandWomeninSportsDay, #NationalLoveYourPetDay, #InternationalWomensDay, #BritishScienceWeek and #InternationalDayofSportforDevelopmentandPeace. We also tweeted for Explore Your Archives #EYAFloraandFauna during March and are currently sharing content for Archives and Records Association Scotland #Achive30 event.
Our closed Facebook Group for registered volunteers stands at 46 members and we’ve recently been discussing diverse subjects including Victorian Spiritualism, Père Lachaise Cemetery, and the joy of handwritten letters!
I could not have imagined when we started recruiting for this project, just how committed and engaging our group would be. But early on during the training sessions, I was struck how enthusiastic and inspired they were while also being very understanding of unavoidable technical delays. I am also impressed at the phenomenal amount of work they’ve completed in such a short time around busy lives, and they actively work to block out time to contribute because they believe in the importance of this project. They all have to complete a registration form, before gaining access to the platform, and most, when asked, tell us what you would like to get out of this project, ticked the “to make a difference” box. This is clearly exemplified in their plentiful contributions and inexhaustible enthusiasm.
I have also been overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of this heritage archives environment and sector. This project has been met, at every request, with offers of help and support and a true sense of working together supporting individual endeavours for the greater good of the whole sector. How wonderful to be part of such a great community.
Do please get in touch if you’d like to join our project and a brand-new global community.
Digital Volunteering Project Officer / Swyddog Prosiect Gwirfoddoli Digidol
Phone / Ffôn: 01495 742450
Email / Ebost: email@example.com