Volunteering at the RCP
Photographic portrait of Frederick Parkes Weber.
Frederick Parkes Weber, 1940, MS6345/7

As an MA student studying Archives and Records Management at UCL, I have spent 6 months volunteering at the RCP. I initially started with a two-week placement as part of my course, to gain some practical experience working in an archive. I really enjoyed my time here and wanted to consolidate what I had learnt, so I carried on! My time here has been such a fantastic opportunity to develop my skills and gain a greater understanding of the practical side of a career as an archivist, as well as a wonderful opportunity to learn more about medical history.

During the placement, the task I was given was to catalogue a box of items relating to the dermatologist Frederick Parkes Weber (1863-1962). The box contained a huge span of documents, from his birth certificate to his 90th birthday cards, and everything in between! My task was to wade through the variety of letters, medical reports, telegrams, and diaries to create a system of categories according to the archiving standards that I had been taught about at university. As someone who didn’t know anything about Parkes Weber before my placement, I was continually impressed by his prolific career, but his achievements felt more emphatic when uncovering them through the words of grateful doctors who had learned from him, or from the many positive reviews of his works, or even simply from the many cards and letters he received on his birthdays. 


Collection of birthday telegrams.
Telegrams received by Parkes Weber for his birthday, MS6345/3


I particularly enjoyed the personal side of his life story from letters from his nieces and nephews providing family updates, and a diary in which he noted the details of sightseeing on his holidays with his wife Dr Hedwig Unger-Laissle.


Page from a personal diary.
Personal diary that Parkes Weber kept from 1933-1952, MS6345/4


Even the way Parkes Weber would annotate the pages revealed so much about him; what he felt was important to highlight and what kind of approach he took to his own works. It was fascinating to witness an entire career through the items in this box.

During the placement I also catalogued a series of records relating to the establishment of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1929. While these documents were less personal, it was fascinating to see behind the scenes of the process of its establishment, and how much the parties involved had to go back and forth on matters such as defining how much authority the new society would have. Having this extra information created an engaging story that I was pleased to be able to learn more about.

Following the placement, I decided to return to the Parkes Weber box, as due to the size of the collection I hadn’t gotten as far as I would have liked. I wanted to gain experience by seeing the project through from beginning to end, so volunteering in the months after involved many other aspects of the archiving process. This included inputting the records on the Axiell cataloguing software and packaging the materials, which contained both photographs and papers of varying quality and so needed further consideration into how best to look after them. 


Fragile document placed in a clear protective sleeve.
Example of delicate page needing extra care. placed in a melinex sleeve MS6345/8


It was so satisfying to be able to finish these, and I’m pleased to say that both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists records as well as the Parkes Weber records are now available to researchers.

Through my time at the RCP, I have consistently been reminded of how engaging and inspiring it is to be an archivist. From my experience, it needs a combination of a strong attention to detail with an ability to grasp the bigger picture; but it also involves an enjoyment of stories, which become increasingly vivid the more you examine the archive. It involves historical research but in one of the most rewarding ways possible, as having original records in front of you brings a sense that you are genuinely engaging and connecting with history and facilitating this for others too. It is a huge privilege to have this opportunity.

On top of that, I have loved getting to volunteer in such a fascinating place. One of my favourite parts of my placement was the behind-the-scenes tour I received on my first day. I got to see some fantastic parts of the archive: what stuck in my mind particularly was a diary from Queen Victoria’s obstetrician, Robert Ferguson (1799-1865), giving a description of the birth of her first child. I also found the apothecary jars that were used in the 1600s to hold medical ingredients particularly striking. I also loved how much detail there was in the building, from Denys Lasdun’s (1914-2001) architectural choices to the garden of medicinal plants. Overall, I’m so glad to have had such a valuable experience as an archive volunteer at the RCP, both developing my skills and engaging my enthusiasm as a budding archivist. 


Ana Brown



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