Conservation Volunteers

The Library’s conservation volunteering programme

The Library’s Conservation Unit frequently receives requests for volunteer placements, and it can be difficult to accommodate these within our busy workshop. Following discussions, we decided to create a summer programme which would allow us to take a batch of several volunteers, to work for a day a week on a number of appropriate projects. This would allow us to use volunteers in a more efficient and structured way, and to welcome a greater number.

We ran the programme for the first time in summer 2014, and subsequently in the summers of 2015 and 2016. We put out a call for volunteers to relevant colleges and university departments in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and in 2014 we also advertised on Creative Scotland. We invite the respondents to attend a ‘taster session’ lasting two and a half hours, where they are given information about the work of the Conservation Unit and the volunteering programme, and are given the opportunity to try out some of the work they’ll be doing. Each candidate is also taken aside for a five minute chat with one of the conservators and the Library’s Organisational Development Officer, to find out what they hope to get out of the programme, and to check they understand the nature of the commitment. The taster session therefore fulfills two main purposes: it enables us to check the suitability of the candidates for the work we have lined up, and it gives the candidates a good understanding of what the programme will involve.

Following the taster session in 2014 we had to reduce our volunteers to a manageable number. One or two candidates decided the programme was not for them and dropped out of their own accord, but in addition to this we had to reject a few people, and this was hard when they had all shown enthusiasm for the opportunity. In future years we learned from this and only invited as many people as we could potentially accommodate as volunteers to the taster session; we’ve found that 12 seems to be a good number. We also stopped using Creative Scotland for recruiting, because it clearly had the potential to generate more interest than we could cope with! Our 2016 intake of volunteers along with two of the Library’s conservators is shown below.

The length of our programme is 10 or 11 weeks, starting in late June and finishing in late August or early September. The volunteers work from 10am to 4pm, in a dedicated room in our Causewayside building. We aim to make the atmosphere pleasant and informal, with plenty of chat and chocolate biscuits to break up the day. Each session is led by two staff who are conservators or conservation technicians, and we often have a conservation intern around who can help out as well. The volunteers are frequently interested in careers in library work, sometimes specifically in conservation, and they appreciate the opportunity to chat to our staff and find out what our jobs involve. They are particularly keen to visit the conservation workshop to see the conservators’ work in progress, and this is usually arranged during the programme.

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Each year we identify several projects that are suitable for volunteers. We are looking for projects that can be done on a large scale, with work that is sufficiently interesting to hold the volunteers’ attention, but not excessively complicated. We also try to give the volunteers the chance to work with a range of types and formats of material. The projects have included auditing and cleaning twentieth century pamphlets; documenting and packing ephemera collected during the recent Scottish independence referendum; cleaning and packing up large roller maps; organising and rehousing the paper archive from the Library’s Moving Image archive and rehousing a wide range of photographic collections. As awareness of our programme has grown within the Library, the curators have begun to flag up collections which require attention and which might make suitable volunteer projects. The images below show volunteers working with pamphlets, maps and the referendum ephemera.

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Our previous volunteers often keep in touch with us, and we offer to provide references for them if they are applying for jobs or courses in the heritage sector. To date two of our volunteers have got jobs at the Library, three have gone on to study conservation, and three have gone to collections digitisation jobs and apprenticeships. We were particularly pleased recently when a previous volunteer landed an exciting new job and wrote to say that ‘I definitely think my time volunteering with the NLS was a huge contributing factor in my getting this job’.

Enquiries about our conservation volunteering programme are always welcome, and can be directed to the Collections Care Manager, Isobel Griffin (