Long before Big Brother and other nightmares of reality TV made their assault upon the living rooms of the nation, a project began to gather the thoughts and opinions of the ordinary men and women of Britain.
It started in 1937, the brainchild of three men who wanted to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ to study everyday life in the UK. Volunteer writers were recruited from all over the country and asked to keep diaries and respond to a series of open-ended questionnaires. Thus, Mass Observation was born.
Victoria Wood adapted and starred in a 2006 ITV drama, “Housewife, 49” which portrayed the war-time story of Nella Last, one of MO’s most prolific contributors. The original project continued into the early 1950s when the emphasis changed from social research to looking at consumer behaviour.
In 1970 the MO Archive went to the University of Sussex and it was from there that the new MO project was launched in 1981, recruiting volunteers through press, TV and radio ads. It continues to the present day and since that time over 2,800 contributors or “observers” have recorded their thoughts on a variety of topics. Currently, the project is looking for male volunteers aged 16 and 44 in the Sparkland area. (Their needs may change so keep checking the website). Today there are around 400 active observers who are sent ‘directives’ two or three times a year, each encompassing two or three different subjects, one opinion based and one more personal. There is no word limit and contributions can be hand-written, typed or spoken. Spelling and grammar are unimportant and the emphasis is more on individual style and honesty with hopefully the ability to tell a good story.
The 2008 summer directive asked for thoughts on Family History Research, War and the Beijing Olympics. In the past, topics have been concerned with the news stories of the day: BSE; AIDS; the death of Princess Diana; and more personal subjects - family relationships; neighbours; leisure pursuits. Sometimes the subjects touch on sensitive areas like abortion or alcohol abuse. In order to encourage frank and honest replies, a degree of anonymity is involved in MO. All observers are issued with a number that they use when submitting responses, along with brief biographical data, hence “Housewife, 49.” Only Archive staff are able to match numbers with names. Each observer is asked to write a biographical essay when they join the project. Copyright and privacy are important and that essay won’t be made public to researchers using the Archive until 50 years have passed. Using initials or made-up names to avoid identifying others is encouraged. One person’s recollection may be another’s libel case.
Jean McFarlane, a retired education advisor, has been involved since the 1980s. “In responding to MO directives I like to feel that I am contributing an ordinary person’s perception of everyday events and experiences. I keep a copy of my responses for my children and grandchildren to read when I am dead. I hope the comments that Mass Observers make will act as a counterbalance to the picture painted by the media. As a social scientist I hope that my small contributions will enable people in the future to have a clearer picture of life in the late 20th and early 21st century.”
The Archive is a Charitable Trust funded by the University of Sussex through their library budget. A successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Foundation in 1997 meant that the collection is now kept under archive conditions. Other funds come from media and institutional fees, plus royalties from publications.
Nella Last’s diary entries reveal that she sometimes doubted the purpose of her life. She always wanted to be a writer and contributed over a million words to MO. Later this year “Nella Last’s Peace” her post-war diaries will be published by Profile Books. Her bedtime scribblings are now part of a National Archive that has been recognised by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as having outstanding national and international importance. The Archive is used by authors, researchers and students but it is free for anyone to visit. You just need to make an appointment.
To access the collection or ask about becoming an observer go to massobs.org.uk/index.htm
Write to Mass Observation Archive, Freepost BR2112, University of Sussex Library, Brighton, BN1 1LX or tel Archive Assistant Jessica Scantlebury on 01273 678157.
Written by Kerry Sutton-Spence
First published issue 55 (Winter 08)
Disclaimer – details were correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.