Volunteer Projects on the Guardian Archive

As the most recent cataloguing project on the Guardian archive draws to a close, our project volunteers, Jane Donaldson and John McCrory reflect on their experience at the John Rylands Library.

Jane Donaldson writes:

I was drawn to the role of volunteer cataloguing the Manchester Guardian papers as having previously worked at John Rylands I was familiar with the collection and knew that it contained some fascinating primary source material. I was excited about the chance of being able to look through the collection, read the letters and research the various subjects all the while being mentored throughout the task.

The project was structured from the outset with various goals given and tasks ranging from the cataloguing of the items to collections encounters, choosing items for exhibition and writing labels in the house style and helping in a sixth form workshop which used material from the collection.

A choice of topics was given for the volunteers to choose from. All would have been interesting to work and research on and it was hard to choose.  I choose Women’s Suffrage and started to catalogue the relevant letters and undertake relevant research.  I thought I knew about Women’s Suffrage, but cataloguing the letters gave me a further insight into the various factions of the Suffragists and Suffragettes, the militant campaigns and increase in violence, plural voting, various Bills and amendments, political struggles, the treatment of prisoners and the violence surrounding the fight for enfranchisement.

Once cataloguing had begun, it seemed that there were references to the Suffragettes wherever I went which made the research more fulfilling. Staying in London, I had to go to a different entrance at Finsbury Park station than usual which meant passing a sculpture which I knew had a representation of one of the Suffragettes, but I hadn’t looked any further into finding out who it was or their story. The figure was of Edith Garrud (1872-1971) a suffragette and martial arts teacher who taught Ju-Jitsu to the Suffragette Bodyguard, a group thirty women who were trained to protect Suffragettes who had been released under the Cat and Mouse act from being rearrested.

A Sustrans ‘Portrait Bench’ by Katie Hallet featuring Edith Garrud, Florence Keen and Jazzie B

A visit to Kew gardens highlighted the more violent techniques of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). They had burnt down the tea gardens.

Information board at Kew Gardens

I’d also noticed packaging on my daughters dolls that included a medal which is based on the Suffragette colours of green (hope), white (purity) and violet (dignity).

The importance of using and questioning resources during research became apparent as there were sometimes errors in secondary resource material. As well as cataloguing, research, palaeography, using the online newspaper database and other related archive skills, this project game me the opportunity to research and find out more about a movement that fought hard to get the vote for Women. I have been to other repositories, searching through their archives, been able to help others with research and attend talks and events with an increased breadth of knowledge. I have enjoyed learning about the significance of Women’s Suffrage and recognise the effect it has on Women still fighting for equality in many areas is as significant today as ever.

John McCrory writes:

Our time on ‘What the Paper’s Say’ began with Fran and Jess giving us a comprehensive tour of the library itself, leaving me with the overriding impression that it felt far larger than its footprint might suggest! Next week I was introduced to the material I was to help catalogue, items from C.P. Scott’s general correspondence covering the Boer War (1899 – 1902). This is not a period in British history that is often discussed, tending to be completely overshadowed by the Great War of 1914-18. But its themes of imperial expansion, the military involvement of the Empire’s Dominions, the development of concentration camps and the freedom of individuals and groups to protest in the face of public hostility, signify its broader importance.

We were given expert guidance on cataloguing, with Jess keeping a close eye on things, and there was always plenty of assistance at hand in the room for those seemingly impenetrable, illegible letters. As part of our role we were to select three items for exhibition in the permanent gallery at the John Rylands Library, along with writing their descriptions for display. Again we were to be helped and closely guided, with Josie Sykes giving us an introduction to theming items, selecting material to match the library’s audience and adding the correct descriptions to the letters.

Two collection encounters were also arranged, allowing us to select three items and introduce them to visitors to the library. It was a great opportunity to discuss material we had been working on for several months and sharing the knowledge we had acquired. One visitor had recently restored the memorial of a distant relative killed in action in South Africa, and was delighted to read original accounts of the war from the period.

We were given the luxury of immersing ourselves in the subject matter, allowing us to gain a real appreciation of the topic through reading contemporary letters, articles, pamphlets and newspaper reports. When reading original records one feels much closer to the individuals writing, and the events described. One particular folder, containing readers’ letters to the Manchester Guardian, gave a vivid impression of the strong feelings invoked by the war. Alternately praising or lamenting the newspaper’s position, with some violently condemning its treachery, the Manchester Guardian’s strong and consistent opposition to the war was an unpopular position at the time, but vindicated by later events.

Memorial Hall, Manchester

Examining records so closely linked with Manchester has also given me new perspectives on the city. When passing Memorial Hall on Albert Square I imagine the peace meetings held in the building, which C.P. Scott ensured were ticket only affairs to keep out the Jingo ‘roughs’ who would otherwise disrupt them. Walking along Spring Gardens I picture the Manchester’s Transvaal Committee’s headquarters at number 49, where great denunciations of the war were penned and sent around the country, and peace demonstrations across the north of England were organised. On Oxford Road the great peace meeting at the old St. James’ Hall comes to mind; John Morley silencing the rowdy, disruptive elements in the crowd by stating that he could offer one single indisputable truth that night- that he was a Lancashire man- before launching into a scathing attack on the war.

49 Spring Gardens, Manchester

Another great benefit has been our attendance at many of the staff meetings: listening to a fascinating talk and demonstration of Victorian photographic techniques, viewing, and being given an introduction to the library’s Gutenberg Bible, listening to the curator’s description of items at the Jeff Nuttall exhibition, along with the discussions on the library’s marketing strategy for the event.

As the project draws to an end, I would like to give particular thanks to Jess, whose unfailing support at every stage of this process has been invaluable, and to Fran, Karen, Sandra and Janette for their assistance and good humour over the last few months. It has been a real privilege to spend this length of time at such an institution, and we have been warmly welcomed and assisted by all the staff at John Rylands. And having the run of an empty reading room on a Monday morning still feels novel!

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