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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2002

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, June 2002 Contents

The Mass-Observation Archive

by Joy Eldridge

Few family historians have heard of the Mass-Observation Archive as it is primarily used by broadcasters and social historians, yet it contains a superb collection of material. The Archive, originally resulting from the work of the social research organisation Mass-Observation, was founded in 1937 with the primary idea of creating 'an anthropology of ourselves'. Both a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers studied the everyday life of ordinary people in Britain throughout the Second World War and into the early 1950s.

The observational team of paid investigators went to meetings, religious occasions, sporting and leisure activities, in the street and at work, and recorded people's behaviour and conversation in as much detail as possible. The material they produced is a varied documentary account of life in Britain at that time.

The original panel of writers, from all over Britain, kept diaries or replied to regular open-ended questionnaires, called directives, sent out by Mass-Observation's central team. For historians of Berkshire and Berkshire family life, the best source of local colour will be among these contributions, both during the war and in post-war times.

The Archive holds war diaries from nine men and women with Berkshire addresses at some time in their wartime existence. These range from one or two entries to more substantial responses and all are available to researchers on microfilm in the reading rooms. Directive respondents from Berkshire are more numerous. There are twenty-eight with a local address, responding to topics such as the food situation in 1942, the traditional English Sunday, feelings about the end of the war and the inconveniences of life in wartime.

The contemporary Mass-Observation Project has also attracted Berkshire residents, responding to present day directives, on a wide range of topics. These have included holidays, growing up, general elections and more unusual themes such as mothers and literacy. A full list of topics covered since 1981 is available on the Archive website.

The identity of all volunteer contributors, throughout the collections, is protected by our access conditions. This means that we are not a fruitful source for people tracing their family tree or investigating wider family history. What we hold is a singular and rich archive of social and life history material, consulted by scholars and visitors worldwide. In the spirit of early Mass-Observation, we offer researchers the chance to read how ordinary people feel and think and make sense of their changing lives. So for those writing their family history the archive is a rich resource for filling in those gaps in our understanding of wartime and postwar years.

The Archive came to the University of Sussex, where it has stayed and flourished into the twenty-first century, as a charitable trust in the care of the University Library. It is a repository of the original Mass-Observation papers and has been collecting life writings since 1981, through volunteer contributors. Our website at www.sussex.ac.uk/library/massobs/ offers comprehensive details on the archive, and how to visit us. Alternatively, you may contact us by letter or email at the address given below. The Archive, as part of the Special Collections in the Library, is open to the public, subject to our access conditions and visitors must make an appointment. The Library is usually open from Monday to Thursday from 9.15am to 5.00pm.

For further information contact us at The Mass-Observation Archive, Special Collections, University of Sussex Library, Brighton, BN2 9QL. Email.


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Berkshire Family History Society 2002

updated 30th June 2002
amended 29th January 2003