The Mass Observation Archive: A History

Professor Dorothy Sheridan MBE, Trustee of the Mass Observation Archive and former Director

Several other writers here and elsewhere have eloquently described the origins and early work of Mass Observation. The first extensive history was published in 2005: Mass-Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory by Nick Hubble. Tom Jeffery has written a brief history of the whole organisation setting it within the context of the late 1930s; Brian Street has covered the relationship between Mass Observation and social anthropology; Bob Malcolmson has described the diary collection; Ben Lander and Stephen Brooke have covered both the early and war years of Mass Observation’s research. This essay then will not attempt to reproduce the history of the original organisation. Instead I shall focus on the establishment of the Archive itself and talk about some of the issues involved in its development as a resource. I joined the Archive as a temporary and part-time assistant to Tom Harrisson in August 1974, about four years after it arrived at the University of Sussex so the story of the Archive is also partly my own personal story with all the subjectivity which that inevitably entails. This is also an account of the decisions made about the development of the Archive and the ways it has been organised which I hope will help readers of the virtual archive understand its provenance.