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At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic key workers experienced a severe shortfall in the supply of ‘scrubs’ and other items of personal protective equipment (PPE). One major response to the shortage was that volunteers, individually and in and across groups, came together to produce PPE for those who needed it. Although there were around 200,000 people in 4,000 groups engaged in this activity in England, their contribution to ameliorating Ithe national crisis has not been recognised.

Our study (by the late Colin Rochester and myself) of the voluntary provision of PPE presented a number of challenges, particularly as we approached our research as historians trying to function in a social policy environment uninterested in history as such and in traditional historical methodology. These included:

Independent scholarship: two self-funded researchers working without bureaucratic or funding constraints on subject choice, methods and conclusions. This differed from large government-funded multi-institution, multi-researcher and in some cases multi-nation research projects which have dominated research output on the impact of the pandemic on the voluntary sector.

Source materials: a vast array of documentary sources, mainly online (Hansard, government documents, secondary literature, newspapers, blogs, websites, social media, correspondence and conversations) that needed to be located and filleted. We also used information collected about the various actors to conduct a census of all those individuals and groups known to be involved. This differed from studies carried out by other voluntary action research specialists, which were based largely on non-documentary sources - surveys, interviews and case studies.

Focus on subjects outside the ‘dominant paradigm’ of voluntary action research - informal rather than formal (in organisations) volunteering; self-organised (individuals, families, small groups, mutual aid groups, etc) vs bureaucratically organised activities; public service-delivery vs serious leisure and the ‘citizen supply chain’. This differed from mainstream studies which ignored (or disparaged) these activities.

Analysis: wie es eigentlich gewesen (‘what actually happened’): bottom up analysis based on data rather than theory-led top-down analysis; focus on people as significant actors (who they were, what they did, how they did it, who they did it for, what they thought about it) rather than as passive subjects of external forces in institutional narratives.

The plot of Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night was driven by a historian’s ‘crime of omission’, the theft of archival evidence that undermined the argument of his thesis. The character Miss DeVine summed up the dangers of careless or corrupt research, expedient motivations and tunnel vision, a warning which has, as we have found, continued relevance for researchers:

‘I entirely agree that a historian ought to be precise in detail; but unless you take all the characters and circumstances concerned into account, you are reckoning without the facts. The proportions and relations of things are just as much facts as the things themselves; and if you get those wrong, you falsify the picture really seriously.’

Meta Zimmeck trained as a social historian and carried out research on the employment of women in clerical and professional occupations, including in the Civil Service. Meta then specialised in research on volunteering, government-voluntary sector relations and organisational management and development. She has carried out quantitative, qualitative and policy-based research for a portfolio of clients in local and central government, academic institutions, voluntary organisations and private sector organisations. She and Colin Rochester carried out extensive research on the production of PPE by voluntary action during the pandemic, and she is currently preparing research findings for publication.

All welcome- this session is free to attend, but booking in advance is required.