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The growing value of digital volunteers for museums

On-site volunteers are nothing new to museums but meeting the growing need for digital volunteers is.

Many cultural institutions utilise the help of volunteers in order to keep things running smoothly and stay engaged with the community. But while on-site volunteers have been a staple of museum culture for many years now, digital volunteers are becoming just as important for consistent growth and adaptation.

These volunteers can participate in digital outputs and projects in order to organise digital assets, take part in social media campaigns and more. This allows museums to engage with audiences online, improving accessibility for both audiences and staff members alike.

But recruiting digital volunteers who are up to the task can be a challenge in itself. Museums have to first gain a firm grip of the potential benefits of digital volunteers, before exploring the best ways to recruit, train, integrate and support them as they carry out essential digital work on behalf of the organisation.

The positive impact of digital volunteers

There is no doubt that a growing number of museums are scaling up their digital activities with the help of digital volunteers. In 2018, the Food Museum in Suffolk began its ‘Search for the Stars’ project, which involves transferring all of the museum’s paper record cards onto an online collections management system, essentially creating a free public catalogue of the venue’s 40,000+ objects.

To date, the museum has worked with more than 550 volunteers from over 25 different countries, and over 75% of volunteers are aged between 20 and 34. As a result of the volunteering effort, more than 38,000 of the museum’s records have been successfully transferred so far.

Similarly, the Smithsonian museum has its own Transcription Centre which, since 2013, has engaged the public in volunteering to help make collections more accessible. This involves digital volunteers transcribing historic documents like diaries and working papers of prominent American figures onto a digital catalogue.

How to source, test and train digital museum volunteers

While having digital volunteers on board can be a huge asset for museums, seeking them out and training them up demands time, effort and dedication. The initial preparation for the process should start with writing a clear role profile, similar to a job description but for volunteers. This should outline exactly what is expected and which skills they will learn and develop. Museums should also consider who might be interested in the role from the outset, as suitability will determine how and where best to recruit from – be it students or perhaps retired professionals.

Many universities, colleges and other educational or cultural institutions will have jobs desks and platforms through which volunteers can be found, while certain websites – like Do-It and Reach Volunteering – specialise in pairing budding volunteer hopefuls with the right role. Schools and universities are particularly useful for museums looking to offer experience to younger people through volunteering.

Outside of these dedicated platforms, social media shout-outs and community apps like Next Door allow venues to post about their vacancies and brew up local interest.

Once candidates have been found, emails, phone calls, video calls and (if possible) face-to-face meetings can help to build a rapport between volunteers and museum staff, while also giving museums the chance to find out more about their motivations and skillset. Digital volunteers are as much a part of the museum family as in-person volunteers or permanent staff members, so it’s important that they are welcomed into the fold and kept up to date.

As digital volunteers are more likely to be placed remotely, digital platforms like Dropbox, Google Sheets and more can make it easy and seamless when it comes to sharing information, working on documents and checking on progress. However, this can raise its own challenges in terms of data protection and susceptibility towards cyber attacks. For this reason, working closely with IT and information security teams to provide adequate guidance and training to volunteers is of critical importance.

With an army of digital volunteers at their disposal, museums are powering up their online presence and ensuring that they aren’t falling behind the technologically-advanced times.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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