Our volunteers have played an invaluable role in our Heritage Lottery Funded outreach project. The time and care they give to each of their projects is amazing, and we are lucky to see their faces in our office on a weekly basis. I wanted to share what the volunteers have been up to, but it’s far more interesting to read about their experiences first hand, than to have me ramble on. As such, here is a guest post by Jeremy, who graciously agreed to share what he’s been up to since he joined as an Archive Volunteer back in January, as well as his thoughts on the significance of archives and of course – the National Union of Women Teachers archive collection. Here’s Jeremy…
So what is it like volunteering at the Institute of Education?
First of all, I had wanted to do some volunteer work for a while, I needed something to put on my CV and I like the feeling of doing something useful.
I didn’t know what the Institute was or what it did. I did know it was an Educational organisation; I liked that because it suggested a certain higher level of professionalism. Later I found out that a lot of Teacher Training went on here.
But the section I had volunteered for was the “Archive”. It’s a library within a library; far beyond the stacks of books to be borrowed or just pulled off the shelves and read, this was the place where the deep documents were stored; the source material, the stuff that needed to be preserved through time.
I have a long-time love of libraries, I’m a voracious reader, I like the atmosphere, I like being surrounded by books and wherever I go I get a membership at a local branch; so I have a certain familiarity with library procedure and library culture, but this was different, this was …mystery.
Don’t you get the impression archives, any archives, not just the Institute of Education’s, are where the truth is kept, where you get the real story?
No? Just me then.
(Editor’s Note: Jeremy, we are all very much with you on this one!)
But this is neither here nor there. You want to know about volunteering at the archive.
Over the next few months I was to take on a variety of activities; the Archive puts on a number of displays and shows throughout the year, and this involves the preparation of a lot of visual and text material, so I was involved in printing, trimming, and laminating such materials, I also had a chance to visit the archives long-term climate-controlled storage (surprisingly not old and dusty at all, but bright, modern, and clean.) Most of this was to be later.
Well the first person I met was Alix, she is very easy-going and well organised and she put me to work on the project digitising materials belonging to The National Union of Women Teachers. They were big back in the thirties and best of all they left behind a ton of documentation in the form of printed publications and photographs. My job has largely been to scan the photographs.
When you see a documentary about, say the Edwardian era, you’ll get some photos, maybe some talking heads giving you an informed opinion about the time. Scanning photographs circa 1925 to 35 (very approximately) is nothing like that. Try this, the faces are not like our faces, they have a characteristic that is of their era, I cannot say exactly how, but they do. Scanning so many photos gave me strong impression of the era without a lot of specifics; it was heavy on the atmosphere.
Most, but not all, of the images were of women of the Union, officers of an organisation which fought for equal pay, equal treatment, for higher quality in education, and the professionalization of their career; they were passionate about more than just themselves. In some ways they saw their cause as a patriotic one.
I learned a lot, most surprisingly some the members were also barristers and they did the Union’s legal work. I was impressed with the mettle of members who had overcome barriers in what can still be an unfriendly environment for women.
I scanned hundreds of photos and I was impressed with the seriousness and toughness of these people; it was a different era, there was no such thing as “having it all” in that era, most of them as I was to later learn were unmarried since the laws and regulations of the time disallowed them from continuing their profession after marriage. They faced having lower wages than their male colleagues (who were assumed to be supporting families); they were often barred from educating older boys because it was assumed an unsuitable position for a woman. They were often passed over for Head Teacher positions despite their seniority. Through all of this they endured.
If there was a phase that came to mind constantly it was “no nonsense”. My education is from the seventies but I could imagine any of them as the tough old fashioned head-teachers of my time; there was something there I recognised very much.
The photographic scanning is largely finished; there still may be an envelope of two marked “fragile “, that remains to be done.
I did (as indicated) go on to other things, including proofing the scans of the Union’s newspaper “The Woman Teacher”. It was here that I got the context for the images. The organisation was not just a political talking shop (although their tireless campaigning was their main activity), it provided an emergency pension for retired members who had fallen on hard times, organised fact finding overseas tours to Canada, Italy, and the United States. It even served as a form for cultural pursuits like literature and the theatre.
They had friends in high places like Lady Astor. They tussled endlessly with successive governments both Labour and Conservative. But mostly they fought of equal pay and treatment for women in the teaching profession.
The photographs are important (OK, I scanned them, I would say that.) But what I mean is the Newspapers tell you what they did, but the photographs show you who they were; they put a human face on those lives. And I think, as you look at them you can see something of the kind of people they had to be, to do what they had to do,
And their struggle is still relevant, I just read that women’s pay has actually decline in comparison to men’s, there is still some way to go.
But As I write this, I think, the story of The National Union of Women Teachers is just one. There must be hundreds, thousands of other stories about British education in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in those cool rooms underground, just waiting to be unearthed and told. And thing is, I can’t imagine what they might be.
So, what is volunteering at the Institute of Education’s archives like?
It’s pretty cool.
As always, a huge thanks to our volunteers like Jeremy. And Jeremy, thanks for taking a break from all of the digitisation to write this for the blog!
We are members of Volunteer Centre Camden, and highly recommend them in terms of volunteer recruitment and best practice support… it’s a great organisation with lovely staff.