Blogging the History of Voluntary Action: The First Year

George Campbell Gosling, University of Liverpool

Welcome back! Over the summer we’ve been posting podcasts from our archive of seminar and conference recordings (which you can browse here), but now it’s back to our weekly posts on the latest research, reflections and insights in the history of voluntary action.

I thought it might be a good start to the blog’s second year to take a little look back over the first. In the absence of a journal bringing together the latest research in our increasingly dynamic and busy area of historical study, Georgina Brewis and I agreed on the need for a focal point and a forum for discussion. In many respects the blog is the online partner of our monthly research seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research in London. There are, however, some significant differences. Where our seminars are formal, with 45-minute presentations of recent research, the blog can be informal, immediate and responsive.

Georgina Brewis set up the blog on the VAHS website and in June and July we each wrote short discussion pieces on topics where history and current affairs were colliding. Mine on the relevance of the ‘big society’ and hers on the impact of spending cuts on voluntary sector archives. Before long we were not the only contributors. Tosh Warwick wrote a piece discussing the value of business archives in researching the history of voluntary action and by September we had an article to publish every week. As contributing editor, I do get the chance to share my own thoughts here, but the blog is so much more. The level of interest in contributing to the blog is what has made it a success and we are grateful to all of our contributors.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)

The range of topics and themes addressed on the blog has reflected the diversity of research being conducted in our field. Some core topics are not surprising, such as philanthropy or the voluntary sector. But for anyone wondering exactly what is covered under the banner of ‘voluntary action history’, the blog has served to demonstrate that in practice this can be interpreted rather broadly.

Glen O’Hara and Michael Weatherburn have written for us about co-operativesChris Nottingham, Kate Bradley and numerous others have discussed the history of social work, while Mark Freeman is amongst those to have considered university settlements. John Field and Georgina Brewis have addressed volunteering past and present, while articles from Andrea Pass and Kathleen Vongsathorn have considered mission history. Gareth Millward and others on disability and Robert Howes on the LGBT movement are amongst those tackling the history of campaigning. Meanwhile Sarah Flew and Carmen Mangion have written articles on the meeting point of voluntary action and religion.

It is not, however, the sole purpose of the blog to offer immediate and informal dissemination of the latest research into the history of voluntary action, as useful as that is. The content of many articles is perhaps best described as politics. In some cases this has been giving a historical perspective on current policy developments, whether it has been myself, Frank Prochaska and others on the ‘big society’ or Hugh Cunningham on the ‘New Philanthropy’, Pat Starkey on our so-called ‘problem families’ or Eve Colpus on female philanthropists. In other cases contributors have commented on history in the making. Here Graham Smith on the Occupy movement and various articles from Colin Rochester and Meta Zimmeck on New Labour and the Coalition’s dealings with the voluntary sector deserve particular mention.

Archives have been frequently addressed in articles by Georgina Brewis and a host of guest contributors. These have sometimes been on the value for researching voluntary action history of different types of archives or sources, be they financial records, those of small organisations or business archives. In the case of Leo Enticknap’s discussion of Ken Loach’s 1969 ‘Save the Children’ film, the issue was archival ethics. In other cases they have dealt with the holdings of specific archives, such as those of The Children’s Society or Blind Veterans UK (as St Dunstan’s was recently renamed). Given the VAHS involvement in the campaign for charity archives, it is unsurprising that articles focusing on specific archives and collections look set to be a recurring feature of the blog’s second year as well.

Dr Melanie Oppenheimer

Another area in which the VAHS has been keen to develop its activities, and which has been reflected on the blog, is in the area of transnational histories. This included Melanie Oppenheimer and myself laying out the thinking behind a new international network of researchers,  but has also featured a variety of cross-border case studies. Especially noteworthy here was an article by Thomas Adam explaining the theory of intercultural transfer, which may offer many working in this area a useful framework for understanding the flow of people, practices and ideas around the world through voluntary organisations, associations and networks.

The variety of formats adopted by contributors has demonstrated just how active the field is, just how much there is to say. Both Glen O’Hara and Katrina Gulliver have kindly allowed exclusive extracts from their latest monographs to be posted on the blog. While, of course, academics are used to writing shorter pieces that are a fitting length for a blog for a number of reasons. Conference reports have included organisers reporting back from VAHS events, such as the New Researcher workshops on gender by Kate Bradley and humanitarianism by Kevin O’Sullivan. More often, however, they have been written about other related events, ranging from Henk Looijesteijn on European almshouses to Michael Weatherburn on industrial co-operation.

Anjelica Finnegan

Equally, the blog’s first year has seen a number of book reviews, including from Anjelica Finnegan, and mostly of edited volumes on the history of the voluntary sector specifically. However, the sheer volume of publications in recent years on philanthropy, mutual aid, leisure associations, campaign groups, activism and community networks in the past means there is plenty of material available for future reviews. We would welcome offers of such contributions.

Although Hugh Cunningham did in passing revisit Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 Gospel of Wealth, Kirsten Jarrett’s article on Ada Chesterton’s 1926 book ‘In Darkest London’ was the only classic text revisited in the blog’s first year. But there is no need for it to remain so. Philanthropists and social reformers have often turned to the written word to make their case. Next time you come across something written by Octavia Hill or Peter Townsend, maybe your mind will wander to the place of that text within the history of voluntary action and you will find yourself writing something for us.

For details of our twenty most read articles from our first year, see here.

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