10 Best Practice Tips for using volunteers in Digitisation Projects

Volunteering for archives

As noted in Paul Sugden’s recent Adventures of a Digitisation Consultant post, volunteers can provide invaluable help to heritage organisations carrying out larger scale digitisation projects and scanning projects with limited resources.

Why use volunteers in digitisation projects?

There are several benefits that utilising volunteers can bring to a digitisation project. Beyond the obvious advantage of minimising additional staff costs, employing volunteers offers a very flexible solution. When a project ends, the volunteers involved can simply be moved to a new project or temporarily “retired” until they are needed again.

Another big plus is that volunteer workers are usually very passionate and enthusiastic to be getting involved in hands-on preservation of historic collections, and are productive and conscientious workers as a result.

So, considering these benefits, it’s unsurprising that the recent ARA Managing Volunteers in Archives 2014 report noted significant growth in the use of volunteers in the archives sector.

Volunteers in Digitisation – Ten tips for success...

But if you’re new to digitisation project management or haven’t managed volunteers before, beginning a volunteer program can be a daunting undertaking with several potential pitfalls. So, we’ve put together ten essential best-practice tips to help you achieve volunteer project success:

1. Write a volunteer policy

Creating a written volunteer policy from the outset is vital. This should set out the reasons for involving volunteers in the digitisation project, the level of practical involvement they will have, and how the volunteers will be recruited and managed.This policy will play an important role in communicating to existing paid staff the limits of volunteers’ involvement and reassuring them that they are not under threat of being replaced, as well as informing volunteers of how their role will fit into the project overall.


2. Be specific

About the type of work the volunteers will be getting involved with. Will they be organising and cataloguing collections in preparation for digital scanning? Will they be transcribing metadata? Or will they be receiving full training to actually digitise records?
Being crystal clear about which tasks the volunteers will be performing will help keep volunteers’ expectations realistic and minimise volunteers dropping out due to disenchantment. On a practical level, this clarity can be achieved through producing accurate role descriptions to be given to prospective volunteers.


3. Develop a volunteer-specific application form

Producing a dedicated application form for prospective volunteers makes it easy for them to provide just the information that you need; such as their motivation for getting involved, skills and working availability. It’s important to keep this form brief (ideally one side of A4), to avoid discouraging or intimidating potential applicants.


4. Word of mouth is the best recruitment tool

The Managing Volunteers in Archives report found that (excluding volunteers approaching organisations independently) the largest driver of volunteer applications was informal word of mouth conversations; so encourage all your existing staff and colleagues to spread the word about volunteer opportunities.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for recruiting though. So to cast a broader net, listing volunteer opportunities on websites like the government’s Do-It ( national volunteer database, Reach ( and i-Volunteer ( can also be effective.


5. Provide a comprehensive induction

To make volunteers aware of the organisation’s ways of working and relevant standards (such as procedures for handling archive materials), as well as to share relevant information to comply with workplace health and safety law.


6. Keep things informal

As much as possible, keep processes informal and try to minimise bureaucracy to preserve volunteers enthusiasm for getting involved in the project.


7. Assign a Volunteer Co-ordinator

Making one staff member responsible for the management of the volunteer program (as a Volunteer Co-ordinator or similar) gives both paid staff and volunteers a single, clear liaison to go to for support and resolution of any volunteer related issues.


8. Be flexible

Being as flexible as possible in terms of working patterns offered and different types of work will help attract the maximum number of volunteer applicants. This will also help encourage a diverse selection of volunteer workers, contributing to meeting the Compact Code of Good Practice standards on offering volunteer roles on an equal opportunities basis.


9. Positive feedback and recognition

Numerous studies have found that a key motivation for people volunteering is a feeling of achievement and contribution to something important. Therefore it’s essential to provide volunteers with regular positive feedback and recognition of the value of the work they’re doing, in order to nurture their sense of enthusiasm and fulfilment.


10. Maintain a volunteer database

Perhaps the most obvious point on this list, but it’s important to maintain a record of each volunteers contact details, skills and training when a project comes to a close. Having this information on hand can save valuable time and recruitment resources when volunteers are required for your next digitisation endeavour.

We hope you find these tips useful when planning your next archiving project. For more advice on planning and implementing digitisation projects, and developing a digitisation strategy, take a look at our TownsWeb Archiving consultancy service.

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