In early 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic; we at the Co-operative Heritage Trust had made the decision to try and increase the number of volunteers helping us at the Co-operative Archive. We wanted them to help us make as much of our unique collection available digitally as possible.

Originally this was to have been based in the archive premises at Holyoake House, Manchester and the first task was to create digital transcripts of the Holyoake Collection of letters * but things quickly had to change as the country went into lockdown and our buildings had to close to both public and staff. We decided that we could still recruit volunteers, we just needed to do it differently. So, roles for digital volunteers were advertised on our website and on Do-it.org. The benefit of this was that we could connect with volunteers from all over the country to help us meet our goals. There was no limit to the number of volunteers who could get involved, working from the comfort of their own homes!

As more people became furloughed and lockdown intensified, we found that there were quite a lot of people looking for ways to help organisations and find something to do during a difficult time. As such; twelve volunteers joined the heritage team from a variety of locations, from as far apart as from Devon to Scotland. We already had photostated copies of the letters made in the 1980’s but needed to make them readable and could post these out to volunteers along with instructions on how to transcribe and type up the contents of the letters into an editable document (more straightforward than it sounds, I promise!). 

Here is an example of one of the Holyoake letters - Reading a handwritten script can be difficult and is a recognised heritage skill called paleography. Could you try and transcribe it? Answers on a postcard please; tag us on Twitter, Facebook or drop us an email with your attempt.

Once they had completed this the volunteers emailed us transcribed, digital copies. We can use these to engage audiences and make them available to researchers around the world, which is incredibly important in this time of restricted travel. The team of dedicated volunteers worked through far more documents than our small staff team could have done in the same time and are ensuring that our special collections remain accessible to everyone as the way we work changes. 

We don’t plan to stop here though, we have some exciting next steps in the pipeline. Firstly, we would love for our volunteers to meet the Heritage Trust team returning from furlough. This will be done digitally for the time being, but it would be fantastic if we could all meet up in person in the future. 

We plan to continue to recruit volunteers for remote working to make the complete collection of transcribed documents available as downloads. It also allows a wider range of budding heritage professionals and enthusiasts to learn new skills as the highly competitive heritage sector adapts to post-Covid ways of working. 

We cannot thank our new team of archival volunteers enough for helping us achieve our aim of making our collections more accessible to the wider world, especially given how important that has become this year. We’re excited for what the future holds as the brilliant work continues and extremely glad that we didn’t let Covid-19 deter us from expanding our volunteer team and trying to achieve our goals. 

  • *George Jacob Holyoake was a working class contemporary of the Rochdale Pioneers; a journalist, public speaker and a political radical. His writing helped the co-operative movement grow in influence and the building which houses the archive as well as other co-operative organisations is named after him.