This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has a rare and unique collection of more than 28,000 plant nursery catalogues representing over 2,000 individual nurseries, dating back to 1612. This collection is a fascinating environmental and social history archive, tracking the changing face of gardening infrastructure over time. The Digital Dig project has helped uncover and document hidden horticultural history through three distinct volunteer projects: Transcribers, Geotaggers and Digital Ambassadors. These volunteers have all created digital resources that will make this previously fairly inaccessible collection widely available to users online.
This project was managed by a part-time Digital Dig project manager and a Digital Engagement Officer who managed the Digital Ambassador project. Additional support came from colleagues/teams across Volunteer Development, Libraries and Exhibitions, Fundraising and Digital Collections.
The remote digital transcriber role was circulated to the RHS plant committee members and then advertised on the RHS social media channels.
The remote geotagging role was initially advertised on the Countryside Jobs site and Leicester Museum Studies Jobs desk which attracted around 10 people. We then used targeted paid Meta and Google advertising to attract volunteers which ran over two weeks, 103 people applied for the role during this period. We then put the call out on the RHS Libraries channels for a week and amplified it over the main RHS channels over the weekend, which attracted 88 people. Of the 205 applicants 160 quoted social media as how they had found out about the role.
The transcribers attended initial Zoom training sessions which were followed up by some one-to-one Zoom calls. This included a few out of hours to support international volunteers and those with full-time jobs. The majority of communication has been through ongoing emails. We have monthly Digital Dig Zoom catch up sessions, a regular newsletter and a Slack channel for sharing queries, ideas and successes.
The geotagging role was light-touch as the volunteers were provided with instructions and a batch of locations to geotag with the latitude and longitude coordinates. Communication and ongoing support were all through email.
The Digital Ambassadors met regularly in person and were supported by Emily and by their host organisations. In between sessions the groups collaborated with Real Time and Chocolate Films via email, and with each other by WhatsApp.
1. Staff recruitment
P/t Digital Dig Project Manager recruited, 2.5 days a week. Project team established.
2. Digital project planning and promotion
Research into remote digital volunteering projects and decisions around best tools and platforms for delivery. Create web project page.
3. Digital Volunteer recruitment and training
Development of remote volunteering resources, including handbook, training materials, informal interviews. Use of targeted advertising and Better Impact for recruitment.
4. Digital Volunteer management
Ongoing communication with volunteers through email, Zoom and Slack. Use of newsletter and project emails to share project updates and successes.
5. Digital Volunteer activity
Volunteers used Transkribus Lite to transcribe digitised pages. By the end of February, 31 individual early nursery catalogues have been transcribed totalling 2217 individual pages and over 1099 volunteer hours. Geotaggers were allocated ten locations at a time in spreadsheet form and returned the latitude and longitude coordinates via Google Forms. They have returned 2496 unique locations and given 829 hours of volunteer time to the project.
6. Project Celebrations
In person film screenings for the Digital Ambassadors to showcase their work. Online Digital Dig project celebration and talk.
7. Digital Outputs
Transcribed pages and an interactive map of geotagged locations will feature on the new RHS online collections portal to make the nursery catalogue collections a searchable resource. Films will be launched on social media channels.
8. Project Evaluation
The evaluation consultant was brought in at the start so that we could monitor and evaluate the whole project. Conducted evaluation surveys and focus group interviews about the project.
Keep on adapting
his was a pilot project for the RHS to establish whether there would be interest in opening up the library collections for remote volunteering opportunities. Work with your volunteers to capture their insights about what works and what doesn’t and adapt your training and processes to reflect this. Making your volunteers part of the learning and evaluation gives them greater connection to the project.
Using free resources
We were able to utilise free software such as Google Forms and Transkribus Lite which enabled our volunteers to learn new digital skills and to share data easily. The Digital Culture Network has some great tips for navigating which free or low-cost software options are best for a wide range of digital projects.
Reaching new audiences
Paid online advertising can be a powerful tool for reaching specific audiences. Meta (Facebook and Instagram) offers the widest range of audience targeting options, but Google Ads can also work well. Consider carefully how the options for each platform map on to the characteristics of your key audience. In Google Ads we targeted people who do not live close to an RHS garden searching for online volunteering opportunities, but excluded the RHS as keyword to stop it dominating results. In Meta we targeted people who do not live close to an RHS garden, aged between 18-35, who have expressed an interest in themes relating to gardens or horticulture.
Remote volunteering can be a bit lonely and it is hard to know if volunteers are not in contact because they are happily getting on with the work, busy with other commitments, or actually aren’t engaged with the project. The challenge is around keeping volunteers engaged and supplied with what they need to do the role without overwhelming them with information or deadlines.
Making it sustainable
A remote volunteering project can attract a whole new wealth of volunteers but what happens when the funding ends? Find ways to embed the learning from the project into your organisation so you can offer ongoing opportunities. Project learning from the Digital Dig has been shared with colleagues in other departments and has been fully supported by the Volunteer Development Manager. The Project Manager role has been extended and we are looking at ways to maintain relationships with existing volunteers so that they can transition to new volunteering opportunities.
Know your volunteers
Think about the lifestyle and commitments of the volunteer groups you are looking to attract. Keen gardeners and students are not as available in the summer holidays and the project worked best across the autumn/winter months when they had more time to commit. This can impact your project timescales.
Please attribute as: "Transcribe, geotag and research horticultural heritage collections (2023) by Royal Horticultural Society supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0