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  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices


Jenny Marsden, project coordinator and digital archivist, Manchester Together Archive

Volunteers Ellie Holly and Jane Wilcock cleaning items in the Manchester Together Archive. Photo by Emma Freeman
Volunteers Ellie Holly and Jane Wilcock cleaning items in the Manchester Together Archive. Photo by Emma Freeman

This article presents some of the methods used to provide emotional support to volunteers working with the Manchester Together Archive (MTA) during a recent partnership project between Manchester Art Gallery, Archives+ and the University of Manchester, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The MTA is made up of thousands of tributes that were left in St Ann’s Square and other locations by members of the public following the attack at Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017. The material carries a heavy emotional load, so project staff aimed to design a volunteering programme that supported the emotional wellbeing of volunteers. The methods shared here will be of particular relevance to archivists managing volunteers working with trauma-related collections, which might include organisations engaged in contemporary collecting around COVID-19.

The emotional impact of engaging with archives has received increasing attention from practitioners and researchers. A 2016 special issue of Archival Science ‘Affect and the archive, archives and their affects’ presented a range of approaches to exploring this subject across different archival settings.[1] An example of practical work in this area includes research focused on improving the experience of accessing records for particular users, such as the MIRRA research project at University College London, co-produced with care leavers in partnership with the Care Leavers Association.[2] Attention has also turned to the emotional impact working with particular archives can have on archivists,[3] with increasing awareness that processing collections related to distressing or traumatic history can have a negative impact on a person’s wellbeing, in some cases leading to secondary trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout.[4] The Archives and Records Association have published a series of emotional support guides for people preparing to work with potentially disturbing material, which include techniques for coping during the process.[5]

When an institution chooses to use volunteers to work with potentially distressing collections, it has a duty of care to consider and actively support the emotional wellbeing of the volunteers. Prioritising emotional wellbeing in this way echoes arguments put forward by Caswell and Cifor, who call for an ethics of care in the archive based on ‘radical empathy’ which acknowledges ‘the personal consequences that archival interaction can have on users.’[6]

Over a 12-month period, MTA staff recruited and worked with a total of 23 volunteers to catalogue and digitise thousands of tributes in the archive. The project strove to create an environment that was welcoming, calm, nurturing and non-pressured, in which volunteers felt comfortable talking about their experiences on the project and their feelings about the material and the history it represents. This article presents some of the methods used to provide emotional support for volunteers on the project. You can also download the full guide.

Know what volunteers will be working with

Staff should have some familiarity with the material to determine whether volunteer involvement is appropriate. Preliminary work with the MTA revealed that the vast majority of tributes, although created in response to a traumatic event, expressed sentiments of love and solidarity. The material is emotional but inspires mainly positive feelings, so with suitable measures in place staff thought the material would be manageable for volunteers. At this stage, staff might decide a collection presents too great a risk for volunteers to work with, and look into alternative options for processing. It won’t be possible to identify all potentially problematic material at this stage. Some distressing material might only be revealed through closer work with the collection, and individual responses depend on myriad complex factors and cannot always be predicted.

Seek advice from mental health professionals

Speaking to professionals with an understanding of the mental health issues related to the collection can be extremely helpful. The MTA project received advice from Anne Eyre and Jelena Watkins, who coordinate the Manchester Attack Support Group Programme. Staff sought input on the volunteer programme before it began, discussed risk and prevention, and received invaluable support and advice throughout the project.

Identify additional training needs

Strong communication skills are crucial to build relationships with volunteers and support them throughout the project, and training in this area can better equip staff to talk about sensitive or painful issues with different people. The author completed the ABC Level 2 Award in Counselling Concepts, which developed their active listening skills and verbal communication skills through experiential learning processes. This training was undertaken primarily to support archive users, many of whom had a close personal connection to the Manchester attack, but the skills developed were also useful when working with volunteers.

Coping with exposure to distressing material

Project staff made use of guidance on ‘Coping with Exposure to Disturbing Imagery’ created by the British Red Cross Psychosocial and Mental Health team. The suggestions can be used for any record a person finds distressing or disturbing, not just images. They include:

  • Grounding techniques such as focused breathing and squeezing your fingers to help you feel more grounded in your body.

  • Not feeling forced to look at the material, or limiting the time spent looking

  • Talking about what you have seen with others as soon as possible

  • Preparing for unexpected difficult emotions, allowing yourself to feel these emotions and talk about them

  • Avoiding further exposure.[7]

Being prepared before encountering disturbing material can act as a protective factor to minimise distress. When new volunteers joined the project, staff talked about what had been found already, explained there might be more of this material, and shared the coping techniques. Volunteers were reminded of the techniques if they encountered something distressing, for example disturbing imagery, and were supported by staff to use them. Staff emphasised to volunteers that they did not have to look at or work with an item if they found it distressing, or thought it might be distressing and didn’t want to look more closely. It was important volunteers did not feel pressure to work with such items, and instead would alert staff. Much of the work of the volunteer programme was about creating an environment where volunteers felt comfortable doing this.

Limit exposure to the material

Each volunteer came in for one three-hour shift once a week. The aim of this limited exposure was to keep time spent with the material as a small proportion of the volunteer’s life – they came in for three hours and then had the rest of their week elsewhere. Three hours is still a significant amount of time when working with archival material, and volunteers were encouraged to take regular breaks.

Regular debriefs

Debriefing involves people coming together to share and reflect on their experiences, with the aims of promoting effective coping, learning, and helping minimise the risk of distress. Volunteers on the MTA project took part in a debrief with the project lead during the last 15 minutes of every shift, during which they could share their feelings about the archive and volunteering, and also discuss any practical issues. This dual purpose was helpful, because volunteers got used to speaking about the project with staff and other volunteers. Different questions were used to prompt discussion in the debriefs, for example, ‘did you come across anything that surprised you?’ or ‘was there any challenging material in the archive today?’. There was an emphasis on listening to volunteers, encouraging them to reflect on how they were feeling and coping, supporting them calmly, and normalising their responses to challenging situations. The content of the debriefs varied depending on the volunteers in a session, their connection to the archive, the dynamics between different volunteers, and the material they had been working with that day.

Volunteer support group

The support group was a facilitated peer support group providing a space for reflection on both professional matters and personal wellbeing. The support group was facilitated, in this instance, by a Chartered Psychologist, who also co-facilitates one of the Manchester Attack Support Groups. The group was scheduled to meet approximately every 2-3 months, for around 2 hours. Feedback from volunteers who attended the sessions was positive, and they appreciated the opportunity to spend time with each other. However, it proved difficult to find a time that worked for all volunteers, and take-up was fairly low. Overall, the facilitator and project staff felt the support group was not essential for these particular volunteers, as the main benefit was being with each other, which could also be achieved through regular group socials. For other projects, it could be helpful to hold a support group session early on, then consult the volunteers and facilitator to determine whether there is a need for further sessions.

Training, support and social contact

Giving volunteers adequate training for their role will help prevent unnecessary anxiety. Staff should allocate sufficient time to training, and be available to answer questions, especially with new volunteers. Volunteers should be encouraged to work at their own pace and should not be pressured to process a particular amount of material during a shift. On the MTA project, training was carried out on a one-to-one or one-to-two basis, with volunteers introduced to one task at a time. Detailed written guidance was made available and updated in response to feedback from volunteers. The project lead worked in the same space as the volunteers and was usually present throughout the shift to answer questions and provide support.

Social support is an effective protective factor against mental distress. Social contact, talking about the items, and conferring with others can all be helpful to people working with potentially distressing material. It is good practice to avoid a set-up where volunteers work alone with the material.

Being aware of difference and responsive to change

Emotional resilience and responses to the material can be affected by a person’s cultural background and life experiences, and might change suddenly depending on what is going on in their lives. It is entirely possible for a particular item to trigger a strong and unanticipated emotional response. Staff need to be sensitive to this and recognise if somebody needs to take a break from volunteering, either during a session or for a longer period of time.

Awareness of external events

Anniversaries, trials, inquests, media coverage and related events can bring up difficult emotions for people, and volunteers might need additional support and guidance on how to cope at these times. Staff should keep up to date with related external events, possibly by working with and signing up to newsletters from relevant organisations. For the MTA project, both the Manchester Resilience Hub and the Manchester Attack Support Group programme produced information which staff could share with volunteers.

Support for staff

If staff do not have adequate support themselves it will be hard for them to provide emotional support to volunteers. A narrative review of the psychological impact of spontaneous memorials emphasised the psychologically demanding nature of working with them, and made a clear recommendation that psychological support should be available to both professionals and volunteers.[8] A number of suggestions for supporting staff were made, including seeking support from colleagues or mental health professionals, or training supervisors and peers to provide support.[9] Early in the formation of the MTA, the archiving team accessed support from the Manchester Resilience Hub, including group meetings where staff were offered guidance on processing their emotions and looking after their wellbeing.[10] MTA project partner Kostas Arvanitis commented that this support was ‘especially helpful in normalizing getting emotional […] and processing those emotions in a positive way, by acknowledging rather than suppressing them.’[11] Projects should be designed with appropriate staff support in place, whether through additional training, supervision, making use of existing wellbeing provision, or staffing arrangements that avoid lone working.


The volunteers on the MTA project made a huge contribution to the development of the archive – not just through the hours they spent processing the collection but also by sharing their thoughts and ideas about the archive during their shifts and in the debriefs. The sensitive and emotional nature of the collection asked a lot of them, and staff had a responsibility to provide a level of support beyond what might be experienced on some archival projects. Feedback from volunteers suggests that the support provided was both effective and appreciated. A final point for consideration is that distressing or disturbing records can be found in all collections, not just those most obviously relating to traumatic history. Utilising some of the measures put in place for volunteers on the MTA could support the emotional wellbeing of volunteers working across many different archival collections, and help them feel valued by the organisations they give their time to.

Find out more about the Manchester Together Archive



[1] Anne J Gilliland and Marika Cifor, ‘Affect and the archive, archives and their affects: an introduction to the special issue’ Archival Science 16,1 (2016): 6.

[3] See, for example, Katie Sloan, Jennifer Vanderfluit, and Jennifer Douglas, ‘Not “Just My Problem to Handle”: Emerging Themes on Secondary Trauma and Archivists,’ Journal of Contemporary Archive studies 6,1 (2019); Anne J. Gilliland, “Studying Affect and its Relationship to the Agency of Archivists Since the Yugoslav Wars”. In Archival Education and Research: Selected Papers from the 2014 AERI Conference. UCLA. Report #: 2 (2015). Retrieved from

[4] Katie Sloan, Jennifer Vanderfluit, Jennifer Douglas, ‘Not “Just My Problem to Handle”: Emerging Themes on Secondary Trauma and Archivists,’ Journal of Contemporary Archive studies 6,1 (2019): 1.

[5] The Archives and Records Association’s emotional support guides are available to download at

[6] Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, ‘From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives’, Archivaria 81,Spring (2016): 28, 37.

[7] British Red Cross Psychosocial and Mental Health team. ‘Coping with Exposure to Disturbing Imagery’ (internal document supplied by British Red Cross).

[8] Hannah Collins, Kate Allsopp, Kostas Arvanitis, Prathiba Chitsabesan, and Paul French, ‘Psychological Impact of Spontaneous Memorials: A Narrative Review’ Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication (2020): 4-5.

[9] Ibid., 4-5.

[10] Ibid. 5.

[11] Kostas Arvanitis, ‘The ‘Manchester Together Archive’: researching and developing a museum practice of spontaneous memorials,’ Museum & Society 17(3), (2019): 518.


British Red Cross Psychosocial and Mental Health team. ‘Coping with Exposure to Disturbing Imagery’ (internal document supplied by British Red Cross).

Caswell, Michelle and Cifor, Marika. ‘From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives.’ Archivaria 81, Spring (2016): 23-43.

Collins, Hannah, Allsopp, Kate, Arvanitis, Kostas, Chitsabesan, Prathiba, and French, Paul. Psychological Impact of Spontaneous Memorials: A Narrative Review. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. (2020, March 19).

Gilliland, Anne J. “Studying Affect and its Relationship to the Agency of Archivists Since the Yugoslav Wars”. In Archival Education and Research: Selected Papers from the 2014 AERI Conference. UCLA. Report #2. (2015). Retrieved from

Gilliland, Anne J., and Cifor, Marika. ‘Affect and the archive, archives and their affects: an introduction to the special issue.’ Archival Science 16, 1 (2016): 1-6.

Sloan, Katie, Vanderfluit, Jennifer, and Douglas, Jennifer. ‘Not ‘Just My Problem to Handle’: Emerging Themes on Secondary Trauma and Archivists.’ Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 6, 1 (2019): 1-24.


Jenny Marsden is the Project Coordinator and Digital Archivist for the Manchester Together Archive, based at Manchester Art Gallery. Before starting work on the Manchester Together Archive she was the project coordinator and co-curator of the photographic exhibition Kewpie: Daughter of District Six, a partnership project between GALA Queer Archives (Johannesburg) and the District Six Museum (Cape Town). She also co-curated the exhibition Behind the Warp: Women and Weaving at Rorke’s Drift, based on her work as project archivist on the Power, Gender and Community Art Archive held at the University of Johannesburg. Her previous experience includes work at the British Library and Queen Mary University of London Archives. Jenny has a Masters in Archives and Records Management from University College London.

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