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Leicester Special Collections

Challenges we faced

Pandemic. Prior to 2020, most of us would have never written the word, let alone given much thought to the implications of one ever reaching this country. When volunteering in 2019 to be part of the So that they may have life project, we envisaged the major challenge as one of time.  Would we as a team be able to spend enough hours working on sections of the archives in the University Library’s Special Collections in order to improve their preservation and access? What a different and distant time that now seems, with the coronavirus pandemic dominating our thoughts since.


With the archives closed, the archive volunteers switched to working from home on the Collection’s digitised photographic material, supplementing existing titles and descriptions.  As the lockdown prevented any access to printed works in the University Library and in other collections, most of the volunteers had to draw on other resources, mainly our own knowledge of the university, limited online sources, and earlier research into the history of the University and its collections.

The spreadsheets sent to the volunteers typically contained 10 entries of mixed subject and provenance. These could include for example, images such as those below, annotated with their original titles.

Such a mix was fascinating but problematic! These images exemplify the limitations of the resources available to us, and the difficulty in determining how much description to use in the metadata. With the “demolition” image, nothing was available to confirm the title originally attributed to it as correct; only with the personal knowledge of a University alumna and archive volunteer was it identified as the early stages of the building of the new library in the 1970s.  The Attenborough brothers were photographed during their award of Honorary Distinguished Fellowships, but none of our resources referred to the book they are signing.  A trawl through college prospectuses from the 1920s confirmed the student’s room as correctly dated and located, but would it be of use to future researchers to describe all the furniture in the room?


In every project however, challenges arise to which solutions are found. Despite the coronavirus pandemic the project team found a way to utilise the skills of the archive volunteers, who in turn overcame the restrictions imposed on them by having to work from home, and were able to enhance the photographic collection held by the university.


Text written by Janet Neale

Page curated by John Flynn