COVID-19 and the challenge it presents to volunteering

The closure of the Kew site has affected us all since 20 March 2020, but the impact it has had on our dedicated band of 150 on site volunteers has presented us with many challenges, some of which may still be with us after COVID-19 has gone away.

Keeping our volunteers engaged

Communication for volunteers has been a challenge, restricted mainly to email or by phone, with volunteer supervisors at a one-to-one level or team level. Some of the volunteers have set up their own Zoom coffee rooms so they can still keep in touch with each other, albeit from their own living rooms, and volunteer supervisors have been happy to join them.

Luckily, some of the projects have been able to continue off site. These include the In Their Own Write project, in collaboration with the University of Leicester, which focuses on the many thousands of volumes of poor law correspondence in the record series MH 12, much of which has been little-used by historians, and the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project, in collaboration with the National Maritime Museum. They also include the HO 129 Ecclesiastical Census of 1851 cataloguing project through the transcription platform From The Page.

In fact, many of our on site volunteers reliant on original documents to work on in order to either catalogue our collection to enhance Discovery, or to support our Collection Care department to help conserve our collection, have joined one of these projects, and since lockdown we have added a fourth project – again on From The Page – improving access to British Army Officers’ service records in the series WO 25.

The numbers speak for themselves. From 27 March to 9 June, the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project went from having 592 volunteers to 1,182 volunteers – that’s an increase of 590 volunteers over a 10-week period; the HO 129 Ecclesiastical Census 1851 went from having 69 volunteers to 454 volunteers, an increase of 385 over a 10-week period; and the new WO 25, set up in May, has already attracted 279 volunteers and that number continues to rise.

Being creative

Lockdown has also allowed us to think more creatively, so much so that some traditional on site cataloguing projects can continue just as effectively remotely using digital images of the records available. This is the case with the HO 18 Criminal Petitions project, which is creating in-depth descriptions on Discovery to match those in HO 17, which have opened up this collection immensely to social, local and family historians across the globe.

That said, there are some projects that will just have to wait until COVID-19 has gone. These include the WO 416 prisoner of war cataloguing project, which involves a team of 25 volunteers working on closed records, and creating items to ascertain which records can be opened immediately and which will need to wait until 100 years have passed since the date of birth of the individual prisoner of war.

The project was 65% completed and we’d hoped to finish it by the end of 2021, but that date will need to be put back as we need to ensure working on closed records takes place in a secure environment – something we are not able to do effectively remotely. With social distancing in place, while we may be able to continue the project, we won’t necessarily be able to accommodate all 25 volunteers at the same time, so we will need to think carefully about how we can do things differently on site.

Celebrating success

We can and do still celebrate the fantastic work of all of our volunteers in lockdown. Since our doors closed, we’ve published seven blogs on our website reflecting the diverse work our volunteers contribute to. These include a blog on the In Their Own Write project, two blogs on the aforementioned WO 416 project, one relating to the escape attempts of other ranks and the other on Jamaican-born Jeremiah Anderson, a merchant seaman, who served in both the First and Second World Wars.

They also include blogs on the ZSPC 11 project, looking at the life’s work of Wilfrid Edwin Hayward, an engineer and railway enthusiast, the Middle East cataloguing project, the Second World War Merchant Seamen project, and the cataloguing of drawings and paintings in COPY 1. We’ve also championed the efforts of volunteers on social media in #ArchiveFromHome.

In the 2019 volunteer survey, 90% of our volunteers rated their overall experience as excellent or very good; 52% of volunteers also rated their experience as excellent.

Since last year, improvements have been made in the following areas:

  • Knowing how the project fits into the wider scheme of things at The National Archives;
  • a clear understanding of the project, its purpose, and the value of its outcomes;
  • and interest in the topic of the project.

Based on the findings of the survey, we are looking to make improvements in certain areas. We will continue to focus on enabling volunteers to better see the outcome/results from their project, ensuring that the success of projects is communicated across the organisation. We will also work towards ensuring that volunteers are able to access the support they need, particularly when working remotely. This last aim has become particularly relevant to all of our volunteers since March 2020.

Volunteers’ Week

1-7 June is annual Volunteers’ Week and each year we use this opportunity to promote the value of our volunteers and celebrate their work. Normally, this would be on site at Kew but this year we had to think and act differently.

As an alternative we arranged a series of online events exclusively for our volunteers. These ranged from an overview of all 25 of our current projects and a vlog from our Chief Executive and Keeper, Jeff James, to an in-depth session on the HO 129 1851 Ecclesiastical Census project, and an insight of how volunteers can help The National Archives’ Education and Family Programme and Project Welcome going forward. The feedback from the week was very encouraging with an overall satisfaction rate of 83%.

Keeping in touch

This is more of a challenge in lockdown. With social distancing and for some of our more vulnerable volunteers spending weeks staying home and not seeing anyone outside their household, warm personal communication has become more important. Volunteer supervisors have kept in touch with volunteers through well-being emails and telephone calls.

But in order for us to ensure our messages are consistent and remain up-to-date, we have expanded the way we communicate remotely with our volunteers. This will help us ensure volunteers can stay in touch, not just with their supervisors but with other volunteers and the projects they are involved in.

Identity, belonging and camaraderie are undeniable features of volunteering. If volunteers are feeling worried or isolated, then bringing them together by creating a common goal based on our values will give them something to get behind.

What happens after lockdown eases?

Most of our on site volunteers contribute on average one day per week of their time. We will need to ensure that those that choose to return can do so safely and can be eased back into their roles on site, and offer retraining as necessary. It may be several months before many of our volunteers are able to return, and many may decide not to. 

We also need to ensure that those that do return are given the same level of support and encouragement we provided before lockdown. But with social distancing in place we may need to rethink our volunteer model and manage our programme of volunteering more robustly.

COVID-19 has sparked the drive to rethink how we engage volunteers. Whether on site or off site, volunteers will still continue to contribute to the work of The National Archives, helping us to deliver Archives for Everyone, and The National Archives is eternally grateful for this.


  1. Richard says:

    As a volunteer with another organisation which aims to safeguard our social heritage and at the same time make it accessible to all it’s good to see how other organisations tackle this new norm.

    I expect that many of the changes that will appear were in the pipeline anyway but have been hastened because of COVID-19.

    That said it’s both realistic and sobering to admit – as you do – that volunteers (who by definition don’t earn a salary from their efforts) may choose not to return or if they do have to adapt to anything from new ways of working to completely new roles.

    Given the reliance on volunteers across the board in many such organisations such losses or reskilling could have a detrimental effect on the organisation, its staff and volunteers – both those who leave and those who choose to stay.

    And of course there’s the mental health benefits of volunteering to consider – not necessarily by the ‘parent’ organisation but by someone, somewhere down the line – especially when lockdown has highlighted that some people have been experiencing mental health issues during the last four months.

    Although a Brave New World for us all to negotiate. Hopefully what we lose will not overshadow the potential gains.

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