A few months ago I spent over 80 hours in The Keep, an archive near Brighton, reading the written thoughts and memories of 235 people on the subject of the Second World War. This material was collected by the Mass Observation Project, an initiative that originating during the war but was revived in 1981 to record the thoughts and experiences of people in the UK on a variety of topics. The project recruits volunteers to make up a national writing panel. They are sent ‘directives’ which ask them questions about certain topics and then they write responses and send them back in. These anonymous texts make up a fantastic resource for researchers as they cover so many topics including current events.
My research focuses on how people remember the Second World War today, and in particular how they remember materials created by the Ministry of Information during the war. This Mass Observation material has been a really useful starting point for me, as I have been able to read people’s accounts of their own memories and thought processes and pick out references they make to the Ministry of Information. I will be presenting the results of this research at this year’s International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference at the University of Leicester.
But beyond the content analysis that I conducted, which focuses closely on the core aims of my research project, there are some more general observations I’d like to explore here. Reading this material has been an amazing experience. It is so fascinating to spend time reading the individual thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, often presented in stream-of-consciousness fashion. Many of the responses flow so naturally, as the writer’s thoughts turn from one specific memory to wider topics and emotions rise and fall and spur them on to the next topic. Some of the stories people share are so moving and others really funny – reading these genuinely did make me laugh and cry!
Here are just a few things that really struck me while working on the Mass Observation archive: