A female prisoner in the archives at the NRM

National Railway Museum, York

Karen Baker, 07.05.2013
The Work Track project between the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York and HM Prison Askham Grange, an open prison for women near the end of their sentence, has been running since 2008.

The project aims to help these women re-acclimatise to society by giving them valuable work experience through defined library and archive projects.

So far the placements have worked to open up the museum’s family history resources by transcribing names and references from railway company staff magazines and 19th-century railway petitions.

This information can then be used to help family and local historians with their research, as well as providing the museum with interesting nuggets of social history that can be repurposed for further audience engagement projects.  

The museum works with one placement at a time for a period of between four to 12 weeks. The work is supervised by the librarian but the placement works alongside other curatorial staff.

Quite a bit of preparation is done before the placement starts. The museum provides a role description for the project work and the prison selects a suitable candidate based on the outlined person specification.

An interview is then held at the museum to make sure the right person is selected and to give the opportunity to discuss any special provisions. It also has the added benefit of giving the placement experience of a work interview – albeit an informal one.

The challenges experienced have so far been more to do with stakeholder buy-in and less to do with the individual placement. Clearly defining benefits and preparing for risks helped bring all parties on-board.

The placement programme has been full of positives; the women have all fitted in well, and seem to enjoy the work and the opportunity to be in a museum environment. The outputs of the project will be useful for years to come. And the museum and staff are engaging with a section of society notoriously hard to reach.

If there was one thing that could be done to improve things it would be to find a way to capture the impact of the placement on the prisoners.

Feedback at the time suggests that it is useful to them but it’s not easy to know for sure.

One placement did write to say her time in the museum had given her new hope and faith in humanity. To think that the project has had that affect on at least one person is a worthy justification for it to continue.

Karen Baker is a librarian at the National Railway Museum