A Volunteer’s Perspective

A guest post by one of our regular volunteers in the University Archives…..


As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and in many areas the adage certainly holds much merit – for example, photographs in the world of journalism and reporting. In the case of historical documents, photographs provide valuable insights and snapshots of the past lives of society.

And this is where my volunteering story began – with a modestly-sized brown cardboard box full of photographs. “What goodies might it contain?” I wondered as I lifted the lid and gingerly opened the first file… just over one hundred photos of the construction of the University of Surrey’s Stag Hill campus, was the answer! My task was to enter details of the photos onto a preliminary catalogue set up on MS Excel by the University Archivist. (Who enthusiastically answered my request to gain experience in the archives at Surrey and since my first visit has made me feel very welcome, along with all the other people who work in the Archives and Special Collections.) I hope to gain experience with a view to applying for a place on a Masters in Archives and Records Management course in the future.

Construction Site c.1968 Academicbuilding construction c.1968


The first project set up for me, was to enter details and descriptions of the photographs onto the Excel catalogue, aiming to get as many keywords (words which would help identify the subject/ content if someone was searching for a particular item) into the descriptions as possible. This would eventually be transferred to the cataloguing system used by the archives.


I had been given a good introduction to working with archival material on an initial tour. This included information on protecting items from more contact with our skin than is necessary; not using moisturiser on our hands when handling archival material; and the possible effects of temperature fluctuations in the atmosphere where the material is being stored or worked on. It’s funny – when you’re aware of the need to interfere as little as possible with items from the past, especially avoiding transferring any oils/ residues from your fingerprints to them, how you suddenly begin to suffer from all sorts of face itching impulses. Ignoring the impulses as best I could, I set to work, glancing occasionally at the modestly-sized brown cardboard box that was to be my desk companion for the project. “This shouldn’t take too long, surely…,” I mused, full of enthusiasm and a sweet air of ignorance.

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Four weeks later, I turned over the 113th photograph with a sense of triumph and the sort of minor victory that would really seem inconsequent to anyone who has no idea of the sort of work which might be going on in an archive department. Needless to say, I gained a valuable awareness of pace and the amount of time jobs like cataloguing can require. Over the four weeks, I enjoyed getting to know the members of the archives team enormously and have been really impressed with their knowledge, enthusiasm and enjoyment of their work. As a University of Surrey alumnus myself, there was a certain amount of nostalgia afforded by working with pictures of the campus, and pleasant memories of my time here as a student.

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For my fifth week, an assortment of tasks and experiences was arranged which I enjoyed greatly, including scanning photographs to create digital copies of them; transferring catalogue information from the Excel spreadsheet onto the cataloguing software; looking through a further box of photographs and creating a list of contents; and a most enjoyable experience helping at the Alumni day. This special event involved Alumni from Battersea Polytechnic coming in to help with several mini projects, ranging from describing contents of old student publications or newspaper clippings to going through a copy of the Battersea Polytechnic Cookbook (first published in 1914) and selecting notable recipes with reasons or anecdotes as to why they might be significant. This proved to be a lovely day, enjoyed by all and crowded with the fond reminiscences of the university old students!


A big ‘thank you’ to everyone in the University archives at the University of Surrey for making me so welcome, and for the fantastic experiences so far. I am looking forward to the next ones already! I would like to sign off with this interesting little morsel about the university campus name… ‘Stag Hill’ comes from the medieval deer park belonging to Henry II which spread all the way to Guildford – a bit like its current two-legged occupants of the student variety!

If reading this has sparked you interest in being a volunteer yourself then please do contact us archives@surrey.ac.uk or 01483 689631  and we will be delighted to speak to you.  No matter how much time you have available to give then we have a project for you!