Producing digitally creative and publicly engaging content that responds to archives

CollabArchive is a digital volunteering project led by the Nerve Centre and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project connects new and diverse audiences with archive heritage through creativity and digital technologies, leading to sustained volunteering opportunities at PRONI.

Old passports, ration books and identity cards
Roberta Hewitt: Lost and Found in the Archives. Image courtesy of CollabArchive©

Producing digitally creative and publicly engaging content that responds to archives

This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.

1. Project background

CollabArchive is delivered by Nerve Centre in partnership with the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). Nerve Centre is Northern Ireland’s leading creative media arts centre and PRONI is the official archive for Northern Ireland with a statutory remit to collect, preserve and make available public records and privately deposited archives. It also promotes best practice in archive and records management to ensure records are available for future generations.

CollabArchive connects new and diverse audiences with archive heritage through creativity and digital technologies, leading to sustained volunteering opportunities at PRONI. The project creates volunteering opportunities for underrepresented audiences, extending and enhancing the value of archives to those who traditionally have not engaged. The archives at PRONI belong to the people. CollabArchive shows the value of opening access to those collections and giving volunteers meaningful opportunities that helps to extend their reach.


2. Recruitment

Volunteering activity was overseen by one Nerve Centre role seconded to PRONI — an Engagement Officer and Creative Producer who was the main point of contact for volunteers. Staff from existing departments in PRONI where relevant collections were held supported activity, including those who worked in Records Management, Digitisation and cataloguing.

The five distinct strands of CollabArchive, for example, migration, women’s history, LGBTQ, ensured the project was reaching out to a broad cross-section of society in Northern Ireland. The project aimed to recruit those who had traditionally not engaged with archives and with a mix of digital skills ranging from none to advanced. There were no barriers to participation — participants did not require any existing digital skills or access to equipment — and instead needed only a willingness to engage.

Targeted recruitment was carried out for each strand with stakeholder groups, a mix of those Nerve Centre and PRONI had and had not worked with before, with access to a diverse range of potential volunteers. This included phone calls and meetings with organisations, such as RNIB, as well as open calls published online, in newsletters and Facebook adverts.


3. Volunteer support

Participants first took part in a hybrid in-person/online engagement project which showed what was possible when digital creativity was mixed with archives. From this, they went on to volunteer and the Engagement Officer and Creative Producer:

  • kept in regular communication through one-to-one communications when required
  • set up a dedicated Slack channel for volunteers to remain in touch with the project and each other
  • programmed ‘transcribathon’ and ‘catalogathon’ events at PRONI – day-long community events for volunteers to transcribe, and make more accessible, pre-selected archive content
  • meet-ups for volunteers to explore built and cultural heritage sites
  • showcase events where volunteers could come together and share their work


4. Digital technology and tools

Digital volunteers:

  • transcribed, added catalogue descriptions and metadata for archives using Microsoft Word and a new custom-built back-end to the CollabArchive website for volunteers to submit text-based work
  • learned about the process of digitising documents at PRONI using professional camera equipment, including a Canon EOS 4000D
  • worked with an animator to script a new film on the lift of Roberta Hewitt
  • learned photography skills using Canon DSLR cameras to capture events
  • produced podcasts using in-built mobile phone technology (e.g. Voice Memos) and Zoom recorders to record and Audacity to edit content
  • supported the creation of YouTube videos capturing footage on Canon DSLR cameras and Premiere Pro to edit
  • developed a pop-up exhibition on mental health records using Izi Travel to trigger audio
  • kept in contact with the project/contributors through Zoom and Slack



  • Zoom — £120 per year.
  • Slack — £10 per month.
  • Premiere Pro – approximately £250 per year
  • Additional hardware already owned by the respective partners was utilised, including:
  • iPads – approximately £320
  • MacBook laptops – approximately £2,000
  • Canon EOS 2000D – approximately £350
  • Zoom audio recorders – approximately £200


5. Project stages

1. Project set-up
A staff member with experience of working at PRONI and with an understanding of the archives, the process of selecting and booking materials and who had relationships with staff across departments was brought into the project allowing for a quick project initiation.

2. Identifying collections at PRONI
A period of research by staff helped identify applicable archives that had relevant rights and which were suitable for public use.

3. Project website
Development of a new public facing project website to highlight the work of volunteers and share blog posts from their experiences.

4. Recruitment and engagement programme delivery
Participants were recruited to take part in a creative programme using digital approaches to respond to selected archives.

5. Volunteer programme delivery and management
Participants became volunteers and the Engagement Officer oversaw their activity with the establishment of tasks, supply of original archive material and relevant communication throughout.

6. Showcase events
A series of public events with participants and volunteers to mark their achievements and share work with their peers and stakeholders.


6. Key learnings

Engagement programmes lead to sustained volunteers

Delivering a creative engagement programme first, which showcases the power of connecting archives with digital approaches, helps participants see what’s possible and leads to more sustained volunteers who are bought into the ethos of the project.

Offer hybrid opportunities

Volunteers expect to offer their time in a way that suits them — not the organisation. Giving people the opportunity to offer their time remotely is key alongside opportunities to come together with others to share their thoughts and learning.

Organise ‘hackathon’ events

Set day-long challenges at the host organisation in tasks such as transcription, cataloguing or indexing and allow a mix of volunteers to work together on a shared task. These are low-maintenance, low-cost events that produce excellent personal results for volunteers and generate meaningful outputs on the archives.

Trust volunteers

Volunteers want to access materials they can relate to. They are passionate about collections and archives that have a relevance to their lives and want to see them brought forward for even more audiences. Ensure volunteers have opportunities to work with materials that matter to them.


7. Key challenges

Access to equipment

Not all volunteers will have access to the relevant hardware or software to enable them to work remotely or the resources available to travel to the host organisation. Purchasing additional equipment which can be loaned or covering travel expenses could mitigate this.

Volunteer management is time consuming

Be prepared that managing multiple volunteers with differing needs is time consuming and may require work outside of normal office hours and that some volunteers may need additional support in tech related questions.

Quality assess volunteer work

Build in time for qualified staff to quality assess the work of volunteers and/or develop a mechanism for volunteers to do this with each other. This will ensure any content which goes on to be public facing has been rigorously checked for accuracy.


8. Useful links


More help here

Young woman with red hair holding green headphones

Transcribing audio and video archive material

Barnsley Archives hold records relating to all aspects of life in the Borough of Barnsley and its collections include newspapers, books, sound and film. This project sought to engage and upskill remote digital volunteers to help Barnsley Archives and Local Studies interpret, digitally transcribe and publicly share recently acquired sound and film collections.

Wooden boxes with photos and pictures

How to increase the opportunities for our visitors to engage more deeply with our online archive

Digitising your archive can enable more people to engage with your content and heritage organisation. In this resource, Sarah Saunders looks at the ways digital archives and collections can be organised so that visitors can engage more deeply with them online. She explores the importance of keeping the user front and centre to ensure that your online archive reflects the engagement you want for your users.


Creating online promotional material

Ripon Cathedral recruited five key volunteer roles — photography, visitor experience, heritage collections, website and social media — to help create digital content to promote and increase audience engagement with the cathedral. By creating different roles the project was able to engage with new and existing volunteers to participate in the interpretation of the site, with the aim of making more accessible content for visitors.


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Published: 2023

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Producing digitally creative and publicly engaging content that responds to archives (2023) by Nerve Centre supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


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