Papers of the Mass Observation Project

Scope and Content

The collection comprises the responses which correspondents have made to the directives. Correspondents may type or write by hand, may draw, send photographs, diagrams, cuttings from the press, poems, stories, letters and so on.

Administrative / Biographical History

In 1981, the Mass Observation Archive initiated a new project which set out once again to involve people in the recording of everyday life. On the model of one dimension of Mass Observation's work in the 1930s to 1950s, volunteer correspondents write about particular themes in response to 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 'M-O correspondents', from all over Britain. Since 1981, nearly 3000 have taken part, and the current active mailing list comprises some 400 people.

The Archive's panel of contributors is not intended to be a representative cross section of the British population. All writers are volunteers and therefore self-selected. As a result, the composition of the panel is weighted in specific ways. Women, for example, are three times more likely to volunteer than men, and people over 40 outnumber younger people. All correspondents are allocated a number to safeguard their privacy and allow them to write as candidly as they wish.

About three times a year, the Archive sends out a set of suggestions (or 'directive') for the theme of writing. The themes are chosen by the Archivist, usually in consultation with other members of the Archive staff. Ideas from the correspondents themselves are always taken into account, although people are free to write on any subject that interests them. Occasionally, a researcher may suggest a theme, or even commission a specific directive. The chosen themes may be very personal or more public and relating to opinions rather than direct experience. Sometimes they call for a historical approach. Occasionally they are asked to keep a record of just one day (either an ordinary day or maybe a special one, like a day of celebration).

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 word length. Correspondents may type or write by hand, may draw, 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.

Access Information

The collection is open to all bona fide researchers, by appointment only, telephone or email a week in advance of your intended visit. Researchers must abide by the conditions protecting the collection.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by the Mass Observation Archive Trust with the University of Sussex, from 1981 onwards.


Prepared by John Farrant, September 2002.

Other Finding Aids

Handlists are available in the Library, and the topics suggested in directives may be viewed on the Mass Observation Archive's website massobs/.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction conditions vary. Please consult the Head of Special Collections.


Material will be added as responses to further directives are received.