Our volunteers in their own words

The Unexplored Riches in Medical History project is currently being supported by eight enthusiastic volunteers who kindly give their time to help conserve and preserve the oldest and most delicate of the children’s case files.

Click here to read more about the case file conservation process.

Repairing the case files

Repairing the case files

In today’s post, several of the volunteers explain what it is like to volunteer here at The Children’s Society archive and tell us more about what they’ve been doing.

‘The first part of the job is removing the case file contents from their pale blue linen envelope – sometimes, they are so tightly packed this can be a bit of a struggle.’

‘Once the items have been removed, I clean them with a chemical sponge and a soft brush, place them in between clean blotter and retain the original order of the items as found.’

‘Whilst cleaning I inspect for damaging materials such as metal paper clips or rubber bands as well as unstable documents such as acidic, brittle paper and torn postcards.’

‘Any document that is in a bad condition and cannot be flattened or is badly torn may be humidified or repaired.’

‘Each item is then flattened under weights for a few days, before being packed into a new file folder, tied with cotton ribbon and boxed.’

Filing the case files

When asked what they enjoyed most about volunteering, many of the volunteers agreed that the highlight was the case files themselves.

‘[I enjoy] getting a feel for some of the cases and the individuals involved, with some fascinating insights into social history.’

‘I find the case files fascinating to work on. […] They are only individual peeks in to a wealth of an archive, but it has inspired me to look in to my own family history.’

‘The most exciting part of working with case files must be removing the items from the envelope, because you will never find a repeat one and each of them contains a different story.’

‘There is a great satisfaction in knowing you have helped preserve somebody’s history as well as making a small contribution to the cleaning of such a vast amount of case files and making them accessible.’

‘The most rewarding aspect is probably the sense of achievement that comes from knowing that the case files are now going to survive for much longer thanks to the preservation and conservation work that we’re doing. And knowing that in the future researchers will be able to access the information the files hold much more easily is very satisfying.’

It’s not always easy though. The delicate condition of some of the case files often poses problems.

‘[The most difficult part is] avoiding tearing documents when cleaning.’

‘Personally, I find handling and cleaning the variety of different types of paper quite challenging, as it requires different levels of accuracy with the cleaning sponges and you could lead to damaging the works more.’

‘[The most challenging part] must be to clean some documents which are of poor condition.’

‘I find the assessment of a document the most testing. For example, if I miscalculate the stability of a papered document and put it under the strain of pressing, the piece could split and cause irreversible damage.’

Despite the challenges posed by the fragile state of some of the documents, the project is progressing well, thanks to the help of our volunteers.

Preparing cleaning sponges

The team of volunteers is a varied one, with some currently studying for courses in paper conservation, some retired, and some wanting archive experience. This means that they each have different skills and interests that they can bring to the project.

‘[My motivation for volunteering here was] a combination of wanting to contribute to a worthwhile organisation and looking for a new experience with social contact.’

‘Volunteering is an important asset for a conservator, as through this experience you are allowed to observe and work with people of our profession and more, develop old and new skills, as well as learn new techniques.’

‘To work alongside professionals at such close quarters is an important aspect for my development as a paper conservator.’

‘Because the tasks that I’ve been doing as a volunteer were so well defined I was able to start doing useful work right from the very first day. Everyone has been very friendly and helpful. Also, knowing that I’m going on to study archives, everyone has taken the time to explain more about what they do, which has been great.’

‘It’s been a really great learning experience. I’ve learnt more about how to handle documents correctly, about preservation problems and conservation techniques, and also started to get a feel for how the archives and records fit within the organisation.’

I would like to take the time to say thank you to all our volunteers, not only for their help with the case files, but also for kindly answering my questions for this post.

Here in the archive we’re lucky to have the dual benefit of eight extra hands to help preserve our important case files for the future, plus eight friendly people to help to make the office a brighter place!

Detecting and preventing tuberculosis

As seen in the previous post about John who died at the age of ten tuberculosis was a very prominent disease in the early-20th Century. John died in 1905 when there was very little that could be done to combat the disease. The letter below, from November 1950, shows how things had changed in the intervening years.

Letter about the care of children who had been in contact with tuberculosis, taken from the medical file for HRH Princess Christian's Training College and Infant Nursery, Windsor, 1950

The letter was sent from one of The Children’s Society’s homes, HRH Princess Christian’s Training College and Infant Nursery, Windsor, and discusses how staff at the nursery were caring for children who had been in contact with people suffering from tuberculosis.

In this case, there were two children in the nursery whose mothers had tuberculosis. As the disease is so infectious, the children needed extra monitoring to see if they had contracted it. This highlights the fact that cases of tuberculosis were still very common in 1950, enough that specific procedures had to be put in place for those that had come into contact with the disease.

On reading the letter we can see that the children were monitored for tuberculosis by undergoing a patch test every three months. It also states that if the children were going to be returned to their parents, they should be vaccinated against the disease with the BCG (Bacille de Calmette et Guérin) vaccine. This represents a major development: in 1950, not only could tuberculosis be easily tested for, but it could be prevented through vaccination; a far cry from the ineffective preventative measures and treatments available in John’s day.

The letter comes from a medical file for HRH Princess Christian’s Training College. Similar medical files exist for a number of The Children’s Society’s children’s homes. These files generally contain correspondence about the work of the medical officers for the homes, so they detail the routine of medical tests and check-ups carried out for the children in the homes as well as containing information about a variety of other treatments, tests and diseases.