Contributions from Members

by Jean Seasons, Secretary, Volunteers’ Circle of the National Gallery of Canada.

One of the most rewarding jobs a volunteer can have is in the library of a museum or gallery – if the experience of the volunteers in the National Gallery is any example. There is no doubt that this national institution has the largest collection of books and general art information in the country, but it is certainly duplicated on a smaller scale all over Canada.

A recent article in Pastiche, the newsletter of the Volunteers’ Circle of the National Gallery, detailed their experience and the reaction of the Gallery staff to their work. You may find their history an interesting one for your own volunteers.

First, what do they do? Cyndie Campbell, Head Archives, Documentation and Visual Resources, listed the tasks they accomplish:

  1. General Library Collection: indexing catalogues of Canadian exhibiting societies from the early 20th century; processing new acquisitions (adding protective coverings to dust covers and the call number label to the books); downloading biographic records; searching the library catalogue to verify for duplicates in the collection and sending duplicates to Canadian libraries across the country.
  2. Documentation collection: sorting newspaper clippings  and other printed documentation chronologically in each of the files, ensuring that the citation for each of the items is clearly visible and that duplicates are discarded, (this work enables all the files to be more easily accessible and will assist with future digitizing projects); identifying, cataloguing, labelling and filing slide, photographs, negatives and digital files of art works using various Library resources as well as entering this information in the Library’s visual resources database.
  3. Archives: assisting with arranging, describing, housing of archival collection; compiling and editing transcripts of interviews with artists and other items in the audio-visual holdings.

That is the scope of their activities – the nuts and bolts that keep the Library humming. However, there are many more occupations that capture the hearts of the volunteers. One talks about transcribing tapes of interviews used in conjunction with exhibitions that are in danger of disintegrating with time. She says: “We heard the interviews with the artists, their relatives, and we learned so much. We know it’s important to preserve them on the computer. Mind you, when we saw those enormous Rubbermaid containers filled with tapes – well, let’s say it is not a job for the faint-hearted.” One of the curators is filled with admiration: “They are amazing. We couldn’t have done the work without them. So many hours of dedication, so much fine attention to detail. It’s wonderful.”

One volunteer who says she has been there “forever” says her joe-jobs are a way to free up the staff members for more crucial tasks: “And, more important, it’s a way to pay them back for all the many things they have done for the volunteers.”

Many volunteers have spent long years “in the Library” – 25, 32 years experience. It may be a cliché to suggest that there is a feeling of family in the relationship between the Library and its volunteers, but one has been heard to say that she’s seen some of the staff grow up. And everyone talks about the Christmas pot-luck lunches in the Reading Room where the Library and Archives staff prepares all the food for their guests – the volunteers.

Jonathan Franklin, Chief, Library and Research Fellowship Program, sums up the Gallery staff’s feelings: “Volunteers have added tremendous value to the work of the Library and Archives over the years. We, and Canadians in general, are forever in their debt.”

Now, that is a very happy situation in the world of volunteering.

— Jean Seasons, Secretary, Volunteers’ Circle of the National Gallery of Canada.