Taking a break and volunteering somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse*

Around this time of year, I would normally expect to be restarting my studies. This year, however, I have decided to take a break from the course. This is for a number of reasons, but most of all it’s because I feel that I would benefit at this point from some more practical experience in order to put the skills which I have learned to use in real situations. My studies have involved a lot of work on sample classifications, reports on imaginary scenarios and a lot of thinking about the theoretical side of knowledge organisation, but applying these is a very different skill. Luckily there is an archive reasonably close to where I live, and back in July they just happened to be asking for volunteers to help catalogue some of their small collection.

Inside the cathedral, before the scaffolding (Photo by Vox Humana 8′ CC License)

Guildford cathedral, unlike many others in the UK, is a fairly modern building. Constructed between 1936 and 1961 (interrupted for a spell by World War Two), it was built using clay bricks fashioned from the ground upon which it stands. Nearly all the bricks were ‘donated’ by members of the public, who could buy a brick for ‘two-and-six’ (2 shillings and 6 pence) to contribute to the cost of construction. Some even signed their bricks before they were added to the building**. Despite its somewhat dour outward appearance, the cathedral is very light inside, and has some beautiful examples of stained and etched glass. It has a fairly modernist, minimal look but with enough traditional touches to give an interesting contrast to the clean lines. It was designed by the architect Edward Maufe and, such is the bonus of his work still being within living memory, a large number of his original sketches, plans and notes have been retained by the cathedral. There probably aren’t that many cathedrals in existence where this is the case, let alone those with photographs of it being built!

Inside, hidden for now in a tiny room away from the swathes of scaffolding that currently adorn the cathedral inside and out, you can find the archive. This includes letters, official documents, photographs, architectural plans, and even pattern designs for kneelers (the small cushions laid along pews to kneel on during prayer). I’ve been making my contribution by cataloguing some of these documents and in the process learning a lot about the cathedral and the people involved in its construction and history.

This experience has been so useful to me in terms of seeing exactly how information management is used in a real collection. It’s a small enough collection to not be too daunting, and I also have the benefit of coming in near the beginning of the project when everything is being set up, file plans are being decided (and changed based on new documents coming to light) and content management systems are being introduced. I’m indebted to the project archivist for giving me experience of a range of tasks relating to the collection, including cataloguing using the ISAD(G) standard, accessioning and basic conservation. I also now have some experience of the kinds of outreach work which is often done in relation to projects such as this one, to try to get people interested and involved with the collection. Hopefully I’ll be able to continue volunteering at Guildford for a while longer, and really get to grips with the collection.


*Yes, a rather tortuous reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there but you should be used to that

**There is, as you would expect, a fairly extensive archive record of all those who donated, however, rather unusually, much of it has actually been bricked up into the building itself and is therefore inaccessible! I suppose they were thinking of it as more of a time capsule than a useful record which people might want to refer to.


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