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Resource highlight: Using the Mass Observation archive package

Dr Scott Taylor

In this article, Scott Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Leadership Studies at University of Exeter Business School, recounts his experiences of using the Mass Observation digitised archive at the British Library for his research into women's experiences of the marriage bar - where employers insisted women give up their jobs when they married - which existed right up to the mid-1970s in Britain.

When I told a colleague that I was collecting data in an archive, he was impressed - 'sounds like proper research', he teased. The characterisation of a lone scholar hunched over a dusty leather-bound book, searching for that crucial letter that will change our understanding of a major historical event, is a powerful one. The films and television programmes I watch often use images of this kind of scholarship whenever the story needs to give a sense of research - slow, quiet, in a wood-panelled room, with a lot of page-turning until the moment of joyful discovery.

It is true that the majority of archive research is solitary, quiet, text-based, and dependent on the researcher being able to visit the physical archive, tucked away somewhere in an old building. For corporate archives, though, you'll most likely be in a very secure light industrial unit on the edge of a city rather than in the romantic surroundings of a medieval library building, but you still have to go there. Even when you can take photographs of documents for use off-site, you'll have to travel to where they are stored, wait for the archivist to dig out the relevant documents, and return the originals at the end of the day.

However, archive research is changing. I've always been aware of online data archive catalogues like the ESDS at Essex, which increasingly offers access or delivery to researchers via the internet. What I hadn't realised was that primary materials (the proper historian's holy grail, I'm told) are being made available online or in commercially available software packages.

A piece of research I'm involved in at the moment* combines archive research with interviews. It started when I went to an exhibition about women in the workplace at the Women's Library in the City of London. There was a timeline on the wall; in 1961, according to the line, Barclays Bank removed the marriage bar for women. The curator explained that before 1961 women had to leave work on getting married. This came as a surprise to me - leave work because you got married (if you were a woman)? How did that work? Why? What did it feel like? And less than 50 years ago; still within living memory, just before I was born. Interesting. I might be able to find some women who had this experience. But what about contemporaneous accounts, written by the women subject to this bar? Surely there has to be an archive of some kind, preferably one with diaries or private accounts to place alongside interviews and corporate documents?

Thanks to the television series Housewife, 49, a dramatisation of a woman's diary from the war years, and Radio 4's Woman's Hour, I knew about the existence of an archive that I thought would be helpful. The Mass Observation archive, now held as a special collection at the University of Sussex (a surprisingly long way from Exeter), is the quirky outcome of a series of passionate individuals' actions. It began in 1937 as a private venture, designed to give voice to those usually excluded from academic and fictional accounts of everyday life in the UK. The aim was, as the founders said, to create 'an anthropology of ourselves'. Initially researchers were contracted and sent out to collect observational data about, for example, working class life - the most complete of these projects is found in the Worktown archive at Mass Observation. But Mass Observation (MO) really took off when one of the founders hit on the idea of advertising for diarists. This data took two forms - freeform diaries, written and sent to the MO office, and 'directives' asking for opinions and experiences of specific issues and concerns. As you might expect, MO's correspondents quickly became interesting to government, companies, and the nascent advertising industry. The diaries start in August 1939, to record daily events in the crisis leading up to the declaration of war and subsequently to record the impact of war on everyday lives. Directives started in 1937 and expanded in importance, and that is mainly how the archive continues today.

From 1949 Mass Observation continued as a commercial market research company which is now a subsidiary of BMRB. The pre-1950 archive was deposited at Sussex University in 1970 under the auspices of Sussex's then Vice Chancellor, Lord Asa Briggs, and academic activity (i.e. new contributions) re-started in 1981.

It continues to gather data to this day, providing one of the richest archive resources for researchers interested in everyday British life and opinions about anything you can think of - working life, consumption of all sorts of foods and goods, dreams, hobbies - if you want to research it, chances are part of the archive has some data for you.

Funding, and therefore data collection activity, initially gathered pace during the Second World War when the reception of policy and propaganda assumed significance. The period from 1939 to 1943 was also the high point of the freeform diarist, so this is where I decided to look for data relating to the marriage bar. The status and treatment of women in the workplace was also changing rapidly at this time thanks to male and female conscription, so I was hopeful that there would be plenty of material.

As it turned out, there wasn't a huge amount, but that's another story. What was more interesting was finding out that most of the original 1937-1951 part of the MO archive and selected later sections are available in a package, to buy, from specialist digital resource constructor Adam Matthew Digital. I got very excited about this, briefly, until being told the price (about £26,000). I did ask around my university if we had that amount somewhere to buy the archive package, but didn't get positive responses - unsurprisingly.

But of course the British Library has a copy. And expert librarians to guide in its use. And London's easier to get to from Exeter than Brighton (you still have go to the British Library to access the archive at the moment, unfortunately, but maybe one day it'll be available online for registered readers, please?). I've found the digital package very, very easy to use - intuitive, well organized, each diary entry helpfully subject tagged, accessible from most BL computers, and linked to the print facilities at the Library.

I'd still like a copy of the archive for myself, my students, and interested colleagues to use, but failing that, working on it at the British Library is second best option. And 'I'm away doing archive research at the British Library' is an even more impressive thing to tell colleagues.

* Scott's research project is Living with the marriage bar, in collaboration with Emma Jeanes of Exeter University, funded through the British Academy Small Grants scheme 2009-2010.

Getting started with Mass Observation
The Mass Observation archive is freely available in the British Library's Reading Rooms in St Pancras, London, our newspaper reading room in Colindale, and our reading room in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. The British Library also has all the Mass Observation publications, and microfilm of the material in the archive at Sussex that has not yet been digitised - making our Reading Rooms a great place for your research. All you need is a British Library Reader Pass. Staff on the enquiry desks in the Reading Rooms will be happy to help you use these resources and our requesting system for print publications and the microfilm, if you want to consult those.

Further reading

Mass Observation archive website
http://www.massobs.org.uk
Provides more information about the archive, including its opening hours at the University of Sussex.

Mass Observation Communities Online (MOCO) website
http://www.mocoproject.org.uk
Provides a small amount of the digitised archive freely online, as well as collecting new data.

The Women's Library website
http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/thewomenslibrary/

How to apply for a British Library Reader Pass
http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/inrrooms/stp/register/stpregister.html 

Information about British Library Reading Rooms and opening hours
http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/inrrooms/readingrooms.html

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