The Keep at the University of Sussex
The Archive Today
Today, as part of Special Collections at the University of Sussex, the Archive preserves the papers of the original Mass Observation and makes them publicly available at The Keep. The Archive holds all the material generated by Mass Observation between 1937 and 1949, with a few later additions from the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the original Mass Observation papers, the Archive has also offered a home to other collections which relate closely to the historical period and themes of Mass Observation. Many of these are personal papers: diaries, letters, scrapbooks and albums of various kinds.
Image © David Churchill. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
The Archive is a Charitable Trust in the care of the University of Sussex. The Archive's patron is Lord Briggs who, as Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1970, was responsible for bringing the collection to Sussex and opening it up as a public resource for historical research.
The Archive depends on money from outside the University for many of its special activities. It gains income from royalties from publications, and since 1991 the Friends of the Archive scheme has provided essential financial support for the Archive's activities. Find out more about the Friends of the Archive.
The New Project (1981 onwards)
In 1981, the Archive initiated a new project which set out once again to involve people in the recording of everyday life. Volunteers from all over Britain wrote about their lives, observations and opinions on particular themes in response to open ended questionnaires called 'directives'. Through local and national newspapers, and later through radio and television, the Archive has recruited a new panel of volunteer writers, known as "Mass Observation correspondents", from all over Britain. Since 1981, around 5,000 people have taken part, and some 400 people write for the project today. All correspondents are allocated a number to safeguard their privacy and allow them to write as candidly as they wish. The Mass Observers do not constitute a statistically representative sample of the population but can be seen as reporters or “citizen journalists” who provide a window on their worlds.
About the Directives
The themes chosen for each directive may be very personal or more public and relating to opinions rather than direct experience. Sometimes they call for a historical approach. Occasionally observers are asked to keep a record of just one day (either an ordinary day or maybe a special one, like a day of celebration). Themes may reflect current events, or be suggested by staff, academics and the Mass Observers themselves.
Directives are designed to give correspondents guidance in their writing, while at the same time allowing them the freedom to explore the subject in the way that best suits them. There is no limit on length. Correspondents may type or write by hand, draw, and send photographs, diagrams, cuttings from the press, poems, stories, letters and so on. No stress is placed on "good grammar", spelling or style. The emphasis is on self-expression, candour and a willingness to be a vivid social commentator and tell a good story. Mass Observation places a value on subjective experience and descriptively rich material which can offer insights into everyday life. People writing about themselves, their families and friends, their workplaces and their communities can provide a fruitful contextual perspective (often over several years) through which social change can be explored at the micro level. The material can be mined from different angles with many theoretical approaches.
The Mass Observation Archive welcomes donations of life story documents produced by people in accordance with the traditions of MO.