Blind Veterans UK


Rob Baker - Information and Archives Executive

Rob Baker, Information and Archives Executive for Blind Veterans UK, talks about working for archives in the third sector. The archive contains lifelong records of everyone the charity has ever helped since its inception in 1915, as well as records about its celebrity and royal supporters. It contains artifacts used by the veterans in their rehabilitation, highlighting the similarities and changes in the work of the charity over the past hundred years. Rob covers how the archive is used both by researchers and for the promotion of the charity. The interview shows how the archive continues growing, documenting today's activities with born digital material.




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hello and welcome to the max communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is steve williams and i'm joined today by rob baker information and archives executive for blind veterans uk hi rob would you like to introduce yourself so tell us about how you came to be where you are today um yes pleasure um thank you for having me um i'm essentially a very grand job title but i'm essentially the archivist for the charity um and i've been with veterans uk for nine years now i'm a qualified archivist i've worked in various posts before and it's been a very kind of interesting nine years really so how do you spend an average day in your role because i think a lot of people don't expect the third sector to have their own archives yes um some of us some charities do by no means all sadly um a lot of charities got very interesting histories and i suspect uh in these podcasts a lot of people will tell you that they don't really have an average day and i think that's fairly true for me as well um my role is quite varied which is one of the best things about it i think uh it does have to be quite responsive to two events so sometimes i'm being asked for information photographs um to contribute to planning at quite short notice the nature of a charity archive really is in many ways similar to say a business archive it's primarily there to serve the host institution although um i do feel a lot in terms of external research as well but because of that um things really kind of come up sometimes quite unexpectedly um and i very much am there to work with the different arms of the charity and support and views and tell the stories from the past i suppose to support our current day activity so a lot of the time i'm i'm supplying material that is used by colleagues in uh for example marketing social media our magazine um with our fundraising staff and with a wide variety of other people but yeah beyond that um i'm doing a lot more kind of routine stuff i do get a lot of uh inquiries coming in from researching my family history from academics and people writing books all kinds of things who are interested in us or some aspect of our history um so answering those um i'm also involved with the help of volunteers in digitizing cataloging um just generally kind of getting as much as we can doing to the younger class what type of material are you dealing with then so the archive essentially goes back to 1915 which was when we were founded and i think again typically for a relatively small archive in practice it's a mixture of archives and artifacts and published material so in a very big institution you might have an arc up and you came at library and that the holdings are um they include um archive material as as such so the records from our foundation in 1915 so formal records such as minutes we have also the records of um everybody who the charity has ever supported and going back to the first world war generation we were bounded out of the first world war i was blinded in it and um that's a really rich aspect of what we hold because those people uh young men mostly um certainly for the first four generation that came to us we supported them on a lifelong basis and the records reflect that so if you came to us 20 years old in 1915 and um died 65 years later we've got a huge chunk of your history recorded that um so that that's a particularly important aspect we've got a lot of photographs which is great again going back to the early years um so they're a very wonderful resource to draw upon we have quite a few items either made by pastor blind veterans or used in their training so again so some nice early examples would be for example typewriters which were then learned to time which was things we skilled them up to do today we teach it skills it's the same principle it's just technology um so things like that a lovely visual illustrations really that's what we used to do um the veterans also because the idea was very much that we would help support them and train them up to be uh independent to have different lives after losing their sight but still have a full life so a lot of them went into uh practical based occupations and we taught things like uh map making basket making carpentry so we had some nice items like baskets and trays that were made by the pastel iron veterans and they were sold um and uh either either directly by the men themselves or um through the charity we had our own shop at one time uh so we have some examples of that we have things like the complete run of back issues of our magazine we have material in a variety of formats as well again quite quite typically so on paper we have also got a lot on audio video and a lot of course now digitally um that aspect of course is very very much growing and you've got connections to some quite uh in significant figures so obviously you have royal visits and things like that but you mentioned your shop was that not uh in connection with one of the selfridges um yes our shop was formally opened um by mr selfridge as the recent tv series uh about his life was uh titled um so um yeah selfridge is a nice example perhaps of celebrity support um i mean you mentioned yes both support goes back to the beginning um we've had a royal patron for most of our existence uh initially queen alexandra the then queen mother these things are very useful um and important um but yes we have also had a lot of celebrity support and i think in the early years a lot of this came through because our founder who was a fascinating man called sarath pearson he was actually quite famous in his day himself was very well connected um so he would have known um harry gordon selfridge and i thought a lot of other people he knew politicians he knew was good business people and in terms of helping the charity get promoted and supported that this would be very important it would have helped with fundraising um i think there's an interesting angle as well in that i think it would have made a difference to the lives of the people of support as well um in our early years we were based in uh a large building in in regents park uh called sun dunstan's which is where our former name uh came from um some listeners may know us under the names and functions we changed applying battery pk until well and i think for the blind veterans over the years and perhaps the early years having celebrity visitors um who came in in various ways really sometimes just to kind of offer support but some people come in and gave talks as well um you know contributed to discussions which men were having again as part of the whole sense of development and um rehabilitation um in in a new and rather different life um that must have been really important um so we have all kinds of people glamorous people we have film stars visited um and again that that kind of supports you know gone through the whole history of the charity really so yeah it's a nice angle you mentioned that um that you use your material for marketing and stuff like that presumably to show that you've been doing this for a long time and you're well established but do you have outside people accessing your collection yes the archives are very much open uh to all um unless with some material there might be some restrictions due to data protection uh legislation where you've got information about people who are still living um but beyond that broadly speaking the archives are are open i'm recording this at the time obviously virus so there's a caveat at the moment in that currently that situation but generally speaking the archives are available and yes researchers do come in in practice um because of the nature of the sensitivities of some material with family history inquiries i and my volunteers would usually answer inquiries of ourselves without um inquiries kind of needing to come in um and that's the free service we would encourage donations we don't charge and we also do things like look to see if we've got um the person's ancestor in uh our photographs as i mentioned before we have a lot of early photographs um but yes external researchers as well we definitely do get inquiries from um academics um students that includes as well really and certainly also people writing books or working on web articles and also media interests as well and this can be a whole range of things really so you get some people who might be interested for example would be there's been quite a bit of interest in an academic level on it with facial disfigurement which isn't entirely our story um this is a groundbreaking plastic surgeon called harold gillies who worked on this but we've got a bit of that story some of our guys did suffer extensive facial disfigurement we have some interesting photos we have some interesting details about them so we can you know add value to that kind of research sometimes it might be the story of an individual or in that from themselves so for example i was contacted a while ago by a keen fan of everton football club who was working on um a history based piece for a fan website and that that related for us to a gentleman called harry cook who's one of our world online veterans who would actually be the keen amateur footballer before the war um he was from liverpool and um unfortunately having lost his side he'd have to give up on on you know playing football um but he we retrained him as a physiotherapist and after a few jobs down the line he got what must have been his dream job um becoming a physiotherapist for everton football club and thus the the link and that was great because the searching in question he'd already got some information from which we didn't have and we had some information which he didn't have so we were able to put those two elements together to make more the story and it's uh it's a great story harry was with a long time uh he went to the fa cup final with when they reached that he treated uh the famous footballers of the day dixie dean is perhaps the name that's best best remembered today star spreiker um and he stayed there until um suddenly the second world war which obviously closed specially and again and he had to move on to another job that's a kind of great story so yeah it's a wide variety of material and sometimes it's not the obvious thing that people are inquiring about i've always you know how blindness was treated or aspects of disability yeah are there any particular challenges do you think that come with uh dealing with your specific archives um but there are numerous challenges to uh you know managing making the best use of the archives that there are i think with all small specialists you always feel there is too much new and too little um yeah there are particular issues i i think a lot of the issues are ones which uh archives generally are facing so for example um digital material the i feel that's born digital to use the jargon but um it's been created in digital formats making sure that's being captured and preserved for the future i'd say is perhaps the the biggest challenge um amongst amongst many what are your hopes going forward are you still collecting material yes um very much i mean this relates to the digital um management and preservation in the long term uh really that it's very much an ongoing archive and that's the point really of this material being with the the organization that created it that's it's not a dead thing we're a living organization and therefore we're still generating records mostly although not exclusively digital these days um so the archive is is continually being added to continue to approve um so i suppose in terms of hopes yes that the primary hope is that i can continue to capture and adequately represent our current activities so that they're preserved to be looked back at and or they're available for the future what sort of things are you adding then the work that you're currently doing and things like that is it just those kind of um work day records or are you still bringing in i don't know um new braille computers if such a thing exists are you doing things like that yeah it is a mixture in that sense we we are still getting material from the way into the past coming in as well sometimes that's both and externally so some items um occasionally turn up some most often from our center of brighton which we opened in 1938 so occasionally um happened recently in fact where um some architectural plans relating actually to the the design of the building as it was when when it opened in in the 1930s um what were found in our boiler room of all places um where they clearly had been for a very long time without anybody realizing that they were there including me i'd never gone um thought to look in a in a boiler room that might be a uh guy and clearly i should um but that's a lesson for the future um other material not quite so old occasionally turns up from there um obviously yeah that there are more recent examples just from going um you know planning material um so material relating to projects we've recently undertaken and you know for more materials minutes um i'm still gathered gathering engine generally as best i can but we are also proactive i think in terms of trying to um generate new material and one thing i should mention here is that uh we have a new podcast i've seen stories which is a mixture it's using some material audio material already held in the archives where we've in the past interviewed some of our blind veterans about their lives their experiences their military service and about their experience losing their sight coming to us but that's being augmented with new interviews from our current blind veterans and we've started really with um the second world war generation because we're conscious that sadly you know they will not be with us um for a tremendous amount of time longer anybody who knows served in the second world war is going to be already very elderly but we've got a number of um members who still um have very interesting stories to tell so we've been capturing those plotted to capture those and add those two to this new podcast um and that will will continue as well sounds like a great project what in your opinion is the most interesting item you have what's your favorite it's i just think it's really hard for an argument to pick out a particular item patch from the archive because part of the point of the archives is they're all interconnected [Music] showing what we did but it's perhaps easier from the archives side um one item i'm very fond of is um i mentioned before about items made by the pacified veterans and including a lot of carpentry um items some which are quite large and we wouldn't really even have space for in the archives if we have them but so we do we do have for example quite a lot of trades and um there's a nice story involving um a gentleman called his anglicis name was harry o'hara uh which i think makes sound makes himself irish but he was actually a japanese gentleman who served in the first world war he wasn't actually blinded um but he he was wounded um he said with the gurkhas and then the middle sex regiment and he married a british girl and um he settled in this country and we don't have the full story really about how he came to be involved with us but he kind of came to help us in uh around the 1920s 1930s and he was a very skilled um artist really lacquer artist and we have um a tray that's decorated by him which is an example of clearly a lot of work he did with what work items made by the men where they were they were painted and had some really beautiful lacquer work added to them so um but we've got one example of this in the archives so there's a really nice really nice tray um showing a japanese building and a child and that's in red pink background so it's very good um so i think that's a lovely example really of also of um the charity and people help bring those help further i suppose the the work already being done by the pathfinders to support themselves um i think i should say if let's say we we know from catalogues that we've got from these items being sold that harry worked on a lot of these items with a lot of pictures of um items with these japanese style decorations on them but there's literally just one tray that we have with this work on them so if anybody out there happens to have to you know have any more of them and we would like to give them um in a car boot sale or a charity job we would love to have more i suppose it's a good thing that they were all sold though because then that uh raised funds for the charity yes um that they would have raised funds really directly for the uh for the men i suppose in in a sense um how it was that we would have bought the items from the men and and then sell them sold them on i say men because um certainly until the second world war it was nearly all men that being the nature of the military at the time so um yes but if it would have helped support the blind veterans really make make a living and that that's always been really what we've been about as a charity to say that losing your sight will will change your life quite profoundly it is not the end of your life um our founders throughout the person was a blind one himself and this is the ethos he instilled into the charity but if you are supported and trained you can still have a job have a family life have a social life um enjoy a full life in the way that a sighted person can do and certainly at the time that you know we were founded and with the first war generation um these attitudes were not as commonplace as we would now like to think they are they're maybe still musters of commonplace today as ideally we would like so i i think things like the trays and the items made by the blind veterans which are absolutely to you know professional standard you would not know they were made by somebody and they're a little illustration of this yeah are they available to view online you mentioned a bit of digitization do you have a website that people can look at some of these items yes that we do indeed so is the website there there is a history section for that and you'll you'll find it under the about us as these things usually are so there are a number of images there and information and links um i also uh anybody's interested to follow us on social media we're on the usual social media platforms uh facebook twitter uh our twitter is online veterans find out youtube on facebook we're on instagram and pictures uh go out there from from the history but there's always a selection going out together with of course um you know stories about our company activities as well and then of course your new podcast on theme stories yes so that's available through the website so uk slash unseen stories or just go to the website and you'll find it there uh that that will be added to further so again please do have a listen it's only about there any extracts from the interviews i should say they want about 20 minutes uh on average um the full interviews will be held uh in the archive and you know are there for research purposes and anybody who's interested in you know the longer term but we've picked out you know a good 20 minutes or so purpose and uh which we think will make you know interesting listening in a reasonably biased way that sounds wonderful uh it's a good chance to hear about people's lives living um in in a way that is different from most people's experiences exactly so yes thank you so much for talking to me today rob it sounds really um fascinating the kind of work that you do as an organization and the collection that has come out of it it's been a pleasure thank you very much thank you cheers