Digging into the archives – training student volunteers in research techniques

On 10th November, four students from Leyton 6th Form College came together as part of the Beyond Medicine steering group, to help shape the direction of the project. They had already met before funding was granted to say what would interest them, giving ideas such as making documentaries and holding a fair at their school to share the findings of the research. This session was to scope out further details, such as what archives they would like to visit as part of their training, and how they would like to deliver their research findings.

Following this, seven more volunteers were recruited to help with the archive research. They were a mix of first and second year A’ Level students from the college. On 17th November, Share UK delivered a two hour workshop on how to conduct both online and archive research, looking at key historical databases such as Discovery. At the end of the session, each student was given an archivist to contact to seek out leads on our research question.

The training was followed up on 24th November with a tour by Debbie Challis, archivist from the Women’s Library. Due to Covid, this had to take place online. Debbie gave an overview to the archive, how to access it and what kinds of materials might be found there. She also helped us think through our research question, and how to find answers. As the actions of ordinary women were probably not recorded during the 1918 pandemic, she suggested reading between the lines. She showed us records of WI meetings, which revealed they has been running nursing courses in 1918, which may have been a response to the pandemic. In the days before the NHS, many people would have had to cope with the flu at home, however deadly it was. It is likely that fell to the female members of the household.

On 10th December, students were taken on a self guided tour of the British Library. We didn’t look at any materials relevant to our research question during this tour, but explored the practicalities of how this national archive worked. We also arranged a tour of the Bishopsgate Institute, so the students could compare two very different archives. Sadly due to Covid and staff shortages, this had to be cancelled. We hope to rearrange in the spring.

We set up a Google Classroom for the students with links to the training presentation, online tour, list of archives to contact and some questions to help guide their research. They were invited to submit a 2000 word essay or deliver a presentation by mid January. All submissions will be included in the final report, due for publication later in the year.