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A click up the Eighties: Archive’s digital project opens up our recent past to a wider audience

Some of the 1980s ephemera that forms part of the Mass Observation Archive's 1980s collection

The words and voices of ordinary people commenting on the extraordinary events of the 1980s as they lived through them in Britain will form the basis of an exciting new online teaching resource created by the University of Sussex.

‘Observing the 1980s’, which will feature first-hand accounts of life in Thatcher’s Britain, has been funded by an award of just under £100k from JISC, the digital technology advisers to the education sector.

The aim of the project is to select and digitise materials from the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex and place them online as an Open Educational Resource (OER) for use by a wider group of university students, school pupils and researchers to support their history studies.

The project will be complemented and enhanced by oral history recordings from the British Library’s sound archive collection. The recordings will comprise interviews given by members of the public on a variety of themes associated with the 1980s.

Jane Harvell, Project Lead and Head of Academic Services in the Library at the University of Sussex says: “This project is an exciting new development for the Archive and for Sussex. It effectively opens up the more recent Mass Observation collections for teaching purposes but of course people will still be able to book an appointment and come to the Library to look at the actual documents if they wish to.”

Users will be able to read online a selection of 1980s materials from Mass Observation which will include first-hand accounts of everyday life.

Selection and digitisation of the Mass Observation material will be overseen by project manager and University doctoral researcher Jill Kirby and Mass Observation trustee Dorothy Sheridan, with support from historian Dr Lucy Robinson, current students and the University’s IT services E-learning developer Stuart Lamour.

Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History at the British Library, said: “This new resource will bring together different kinds of personal memory and reflection about a decade that defined a key shift in British society. The 1980s saw the highest levels of unemployment since the 1930s, tumultuous public protest and conflict between the State and labour, and what was arguably the last ‘imperial’ war.”

University of Sussex Senior Archive Assistant Jessica Scantlebury says: “The 1980s was about more than just shoulder pads and giant mobile phones. Access to these Archive materials online will show new generations just how influential a decade it was on the way we live now.”

Subjects covered will include the Falkland’s War, Thatcher’s Britain, AIDS, Charles and Diana’s wedding, the miners’ strike, terrorism, unemployment, immigration. The online collection of printed and written materials will include period ephemera such as public information leaflets, pamphlets, posters and tickets.

Paola Marchionni, programme manager at JISC, says: “JISC has funded this project in recognition of the value of people’s stories in documenting historyand how such content can enrich the teaching and learning of recent history. Observing the 1980s is a truly collaborative effort that brings together different departments and expertise within the University of Sussex along with external partners, in the delivery of innovative open educational resources.”

The Mass Observation Archive – a collection of diaries and observations commissioned from volunteer writers about life in Britain from the 1930s-50s and from the 1980s onwards – is already used as an illuminating source by University of Sussex historian Dr Lucy Robinson for her teaching on the 1980s. Her degree courses will benefit from and serve as a framework for the development of the digitisation project as it progresses.

Dr Robinson says: “The 1980s is attractive to historians because the decade is both close enough and far away enough to allow us to explore the limits of historical perspective and offers a diverse range of subjects in what was the last era before the internet revolution.”

‘Observing the 1980s’ is expected to be up and running by summer 2012, which also marks the 75th anniversary of the Mass Observation Archive. The resource will then be made accessible to teachers and other users outside the University via the free Virtual Learning Environment, Moodle.

Notes for Editors

The Mass Observation Archive specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981. The Archive is in the care of the University of Sussex and is housed in the Library in Special Collections. The Archive is set to transfer, along with the rest of Special Collections, to a new home, The Keep, in 2013, but will still be part of the University of Sussex.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world-class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.

The British Library has one of the largest sound collections in the world in its sound archive. It holds over a million discs, 200,000 tapes, and many other sound and video recordings. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature, to oral history and wildlife sounds. Collection material comes in every conceivable format, from wax cylinder and wire recordings to CD and DVD, and from a wide variety of private, commercial and broadcast sources. The British Library also operates a wide-ranging sound recording programme of its own.

JISCinspires UK colleges and universities in the innovative use of digital technologies, helping to maintain the UK's position as a global leader in education.

The University’s work in securing funding for the 1980s project is in line with one of the HEFCE objectives as outlined in its Strategic Plan for 2011-15: to support, among other things, the effective use of learning technologies; and the increased accessibility and use of open educational resources.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2012