Databasing During Lockdown – A Volunteer’s View

Andy Benbow, who volunteers in the South and West Yorkshire PAS office, shares his personal experience of volunteering during the Covid-19 lockdown.

This blog is a light-hearted look at the trials and tribulations of trying to record finds while volunteering at home during lockdown. This of course, means being unable to handle finds, and instead, working from a photograph, which manufactures a whole host of problems. Then there is the disadvantage of not being able to use the reference facilities, nor have the FLO (Finds Liaison Officer) at your beck and call, although perhaps speed dial could be useful for this? This blog is based on personal experience. Some volunteers will feel an affinity with my situation, while other more experienced volunteers may not. It is up to you, the reader, to draw your own conclusion.

The Covid 19 lockdown, designed to protect life, has been a problematic time for the volunteers in the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The aim is to promote social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease and thus ensure the safety of finders, staff and volunteers. This means everyone having to work from home. Alas, this has had a knock-on effect, creating problems of operational efficiency for both FLO and volunteer, as it has for every walk of life.

Volunteering from home

FLOs have had to find new ways of managing volunteers and working with finders as the government ordered museums to shut. In our group, management is addressed by the judicious use of IT which allows regular contact with everyone and provides ways of devolving information and managing the workload. FLOs can offer advice to finders by phone and email, but it doesn’t look as if the normal meetings to hand in and collect finds are going to be possible for a while. Everyone is puzzling over finding new and safe ways of doing things.

A rather serious example of our weekly SWYOR volunteer meetings

One side effect of lockdown is temporarily halting the flow of incoming finds, allowing for a period of consolidation. This is a breathing space where prudent management of our time can allow some catching up on the “housekeeping” tasks that all FLOs have as part of the management of their respective empires. Many volunteers in our group have been set to work on data-cleaning tasks, editing, correcting and improving records already on the database. Unfortunately, for some FLOs and volunteers, this chance to deal with backlogs has been counterbalanced by having less time available to work, what with childcare and homeschooling to fit in as well as work, and difficulties of IT provision and access to employer networks.

Despite this, recent internal audits of the work being done by FLOs and volunteers during lockdown are reassuring. While FLOs are forced to spend less time meeting with finders, they have been able to dedicate more time to recording and editing records. To our surprise, the number of finds recorded and records edited during lockdown is actually higher than at this time last year.

Most FLOs have a long queue of objects waiting to be recorded, so recording goes on. We were all set to work capturing images and essential details in our last office based volunteering days before lockdown so that these finds could be properly recorded from photographs once we could not get at the finds themselves. As lockdown starts to ease now, it is hoped that our FLO may be able to gain access to the office at times, to replenish the supply of images to be edited by photography volunteers and then used to write descriptions by volunteers like me. We’re all champing at the bit for more to fill our time!

For volunteers, when we are laid off, we sometimes have a void that volunteering filled. Many of us have got more time on our hands, so we are crying out for more work, at the same time that it is harder for FLOs to provide us with tasks, especially ones that can be done from home. Have you noticed that there are more blog posts than usual?

SWYOR-37D193: a copper alloy Roman coin; an illegible radiate or nummus, typical of the coins we record. But is that a figure? Are those letters?

An obvious problem is trying to maintain productivity when in lockdown. The first challenge is having to work from just a photograph to assist the process of identification and description. Take coins for example. Quite often, handling the artefact with that tilt to the left or right for the alteration of light to catch a letter or a figure on a Roman or Medieval coin can make all the difference to a successful identification. The option in lockdown is a photograph of a patinated and abraded worn blob covered in corrosion. No matter how many times you move the screen, tilting the computer itself is of no avail. One must resist the urge to throw the computer through an open window. And in my experience, if you look at something long enough, and look at hundreds of possible comparisons, you can talk yourself (often with an air of desperation) into believing something is there when it is not.

 Resisting the urge to throw the computer through the window.

It is a good job the FLO is there to bring the over-optimistic volunteer back to reality with a resounding crash. The secret must be to remain calm and fight the urge to become carried away, and to know when you are beaten. Remember also that if the FLO does not know the answer, they will be able to contact somebody in the British Museum who will know (hopefully). As long as they haven’t been furloughed…

Or the Roman disc brooch that you entered on the database as a ‘skeleton’ record, which then becomes your task while on lockdown. You scrutinise the photograph of the front and reverse in plan. One can imagine the frustration of looking at reference material and at the photograph, posing the dilemma of whether the brooch is flat or convex. Racking your brains to try to remember from when you created the outline record. Wishing the photographers had had more time to take that crucial side view, but remembering the panic to get as many finds photographed as possible before lockdown. This would probably not be not a problem to an experienced volunteer with an interest in brooches, or the specialist who would have other clues and a whole host of experience to help them reach a conclusion. But it illustrates the difficulty of working from images alone.

SWYOR-FA1879: Roman disc brooch, confirmed to be flat by the FLO

Then, after all that stress, the relief of discovering that these problems can be resolved when the FLO edits and checks the record. Finding that she has managed to liberate a batch of finds from the office to work on at home, so she has the advantage of having the brooch in front of her. Relieved, but a little frustrated because we have a certain pride in our work and I am sure we are all from a similar mould and like to do the job right. Trying to remember not to panic and to accept that some things are impossible to complete without the object itself.

Identification is also impeded by the lack of access to reference material. It is great that there are lots of resources available online and electronically, such as the PASt Explorers Recording Guides on the County Pages. But, nothing beats having the right book to hand. It would be impractical to try to pass reference material between fellow volunteers, risking the transmission of pathogens and possible loss or damage to expensive books. The cost of sourcing reference material can often be prohibitive in this period of austerity and prudent fiscal budget management, even when the second-hand traders are checked. We get round this by promoting teamwork, checking references for each other, by brain storming and by a lot of searching online and on the PAS database. And as a last resort, we can always pester our FLO who will soon be able to get to the books if required.

These observations are just a few of my experiences during my time volunteering in lockdown. This blog could easily become a thesis, so I must end here. One can only hope that things will soon change again, if not returning to normal, as least adapting to a way in which we can get back to doing what we love doing – helping the PAS to record our fascinating past for future generations.