Using Voluntary Sector Archives in Teaching

Over the past few weeks I’ve been preparing the content for a new module ‘Voluntary Organisations, NGOs and the British Public, 1918-1985’ that I will teach to UCL history undergraduates from October, as well as revising a course on twentieth century Youth and Youth Movements for BA Education Studies students. The boom in histories of humanitarianism and voluntary action over the past decade means my reading lists contain a wealth of secondary sources, but I’ve also been putting together a box of charity ephemera for an object handling session with students (more on this in a later blog) as well as seeking out new and interesting primary source material.

Funded by a small UCL ‘Liberating the Curriculum’ teaching grant, my research assistant Charlotte Clements has visited a range of archives to identify new primary sources for use in teaching next year. Some highlights of what she found include personal testimonies from gay teenagers from the Hall-Carpenter Archive at LSE, papers of black youth clubs from the Black Cultural Archives and anti-cuts campaign materials from the Child Poverty Action Group Archive at LSE.

Charlotte also visited the well-set up Children’s Society Archive where she looked at scores of case histories of girls admitted to the Society’s homes in the early twentieth century. These fascinating sources contain documents like medical reports, admissions records, accounts from voluntary visitors or the NSPCC, correspondence between court and the Waifs and Strays’ Society (as the Children’s Society was originally known), and testimony from the girls themselves – detailed evidence of what the historian Pam Cox calls the ‘mixed economy of justice’. For a small fee, the Children’s Society Archive was able to digitise and anonymise a number of real case files of girls from the early twentieth century. I plan to use these with students next year, to be read alongside a chapter from Cox’s book Bad Girls in Britain: Gender, Justice and Welfare, 1900-1950, which is based on some of the same sources.

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Student and staff workshop, UCL Institute of Education, June 2016. Photo: Jake Fairnie

A workshop with a small group of students held this week demonstrated the power of these sources to engage students, who offered helpful feedback on how to present the material. I’m hopeful that discussion of the case histories next year will lead to deeper understanding of the topic of juvenile delinquency and closer engagement with the secondary reading as well as perhaps some reflection on how historians write history.

As this case study shows, the archives of voluntary organisations contain important resources for teaching the history of modern Britain, and by working together academics, archivists and students can create rich new teaching resources to inspire learning.

With thanks to Sarah Aitchison, Charlotte Clements, Pam Cox, Christan Francis, Tony Leoddi, Odile Panetta and Ian Wakeling.