Mass Observation Online

The University Library is delighted to announce access is now available for the University of Cambridge to Mass Observation Online.

Mass Observation Online makes available original manuscript and typescript papers created and collected by the Mass Observation organisation, as well as printed publications, photographs and interactive features. A pioneering social research organisation, Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, film-maker Humphrey Jennings and poet Charles Madge. Their aim was to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, and by recruiting a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers they studied the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. This resource covers the original Mass Observation project, the bulk of which was carried out from 1937 until the mid-1950s, offering an unparalleled insight into everyday life in Britain during these transformative years.

The vast content of the Archive can be divided into two main types: material collected by investigators, and material submitted by volunteers. This raw data was, in turn, summarised in the file reports (or in a few cases, the official publications). The material collected by investigators comprises thematic studies, undertaken by paid ‘observers’, and comprising surveys, collections of ephemera, accounts of ‘overheards’ and covert observations of the general public. The material submitted by volunteers, on the other hand, are deeply personal accounts of individual lives provided by the amateur observers from MO’s ‘National Panel’. The duality apparent in these two opposing methods of data collection was present from the very beginning of Mass Observation’s conception, and has been attributed to the conflicting aims of the co-founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge. From the very start Mass Observation’s methods were divided: Harrisson taking his anthropological, scientific approach to Bolton for the Worktown study, in which the invisibility of the Mass Observation observer was essential, while Madge remained in London to build up the collection of diaries and personal writings from the volunteer National Panel.

The Archive of Mass Observation, a pioneering social research resource, provides access to around 115,000 digital images of material generated by mass observation between 1937 and 1949, with a few later additions from the 1950s and 1960s.

This is an invaluable resource for sociologists, cultural historians and a wide range of other disciplines.

Pamela Slater of 8 Wellgarth Rd N & W. II Single Architect 25, writes [on Monday 8, July, 1940, two months to the day before the first mass air raid on London on 7 September]:

Started new architectural job at London Bridge …

Had lunch with caretaker of the building and her husband where I work-she is sure that London is not going to get bombed “has said so all along!” Much talk about new tea rationing-most people philosophical about it- doesn’t affect me as I don’t care for the stuff.

I can’t bear to think about France – its like having to get used to the idea of a great friend suddenly dying of hidden cancer-till now unsuspected.  What satisfaction can be felt at the Navy’s action against the French fleet, it just makes one feel sick inside.

In lunch time today I walked along Eastcheap to Tower HIll where hundreds of people were standing round a tough, shirt-sleeved, perspiring individual high up on a buttress wall of the higher terrace.  After listening to him with much enjoyment for some time I realised that he must be the famous Donald Soper who I have only seen once before, respectably churchy at a public meeting.  He was grand- held the audience in the hollow of his hand, and kept everyone good-tempered inspte of saying all the time exactly what he wanted to say.  A wind was blowing over the Thames and, what with the new atmosphere of city workers in black coats, and the smells of warfs and granaries and store houses unimaginable goods, I came back to work most cheerfully.  It is really a sign of something healthy in our civilisation that in wartime a pacifist can stand up and talk Christian Pacifism for an hour to a mixed audience and get down amid the affectionate plaudits of that audience.

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