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Press release

  • 22 March 2007

Conference marks new era for Mass Observation at 70

We are 70: Diaries of the Mass Observation Archive

We are 70: Diaries of the Mass Observation Archive

Leading names from the arts and academia will be taking part in a special conference at the University of Sussex (Friday, May 11), to mark the 70th anniversary of the Mass Observation movement.

Journalists, historians, directors, producers and authors will be looking back on some remarkable work inspired by the Mass Observation Archive - housed in the Special Collections department at the University of Sussex library - and looking towards a digital era that will open up the archive to historians and writers online.

The Mass Observation papers - a collection of diaries and written observations reflecting everyday life in Britain that began in the 1930s with the Coronation of King George VI - have inspired numerous books, documentaries, films and television dramas as well as academic research.

Mass Observation-inspired works have include Andrea Levy's Orange Prize-winning novel Small Island (2004); Simon Garfield's diary-based World War II trilogy Our Hidden Lives, We Are At War and Private Battles and the dramatisation of Our Hidden Lives for BBC 4's Lost Decade season in 2005, starring Richard Briers; and Housewife, 49, an ITV drama based on the diary of Nella Last, written by and starring comedian Victoria Wood.

The papers will soon be available in digital format for the first time. Conference sponsors Adam Matthew Digital will be displaying this exciting new resource at the conference.

Speakers at the day-long conference, which is open to the public, include:

  • historian Lord Asa Briggs - former University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor and Patron of the Archive;

  • Ruth Finnegan, Professor of anthropology at the Open University and Brian Street, Professor of anthropology at King's College London, who are both archive Trustees;

  • author Margaret Drabble, whose latest novel, The Sea Lady, draws on Mass Observation material;

  • Juliet Gardiner - author of Mass Observation-inspired works such as The 1940s House;

  • television producer and writer Steve Humphries, whose BBC4 documentary on Britain's sexual morals, Little Kinsey, was based on Mass Observation's 1940s sex survey;

  • documentary maker Richard Broad, who was also editor of the Mass Observation diary-inspired book Nella's Last War.

There will also be an opportunity during the lunch break to meet users and partners of the Archive at a Mass Observation "marketplace", and to view the online version of Mass Observation.

In the afternoon, an Any Questions-style panel of eminent guests, chaired by University of Sussex historian Professor Al Thomson, will discuss the use of the Archive, with questions invited from the audience. Panellists include University of Brighton cultural historian Louise Purbrick; University of Edinburgh sociologist Liz Stanley; University of Sussex historian Dr Claire Langhamer; and University of Warwick historian Professor James Hinton, who is currently working on Mass Observation diaries.

Joining the panel is Dorothy Sheridan, Head of Special Collections and Research Services at the University of Sussex, who says: "We are trying to be faithful to the original idea of Mass Observation, which was to involve a very wide range of people, so we hope all sorts of people will come along as well as academics - writers, poets, artists, photographers, diary-writers, local historians, archivists and museum staff, community workers, publishers, web designers, people from TV, radio and the press and - importantly - current Mass Observers. We want to have a celebration which appeals as much to those who have created the Archive as to those who use it for research."

Notes for editors

  • Celebrating 70 Years of Mass Observation: from the 1930s to the Digital Revolution will be held at the conference centre, Bramber House, University of Sussex, on Friday, May 11, 10am-4.30pm. Conference registration form available at or by letter from MOA, The Library, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QL. Cost is £35 (£25 unwaged). Lunch and refreshments provided. Please register by Friday, 13 April 2007. See or tel: 01273 678157 for further details.
  • The Mass Observation Archive was donated to the University by anthropologist Tom Harrisson. For further information, see
  • The Mass Observation Archive is recognised by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as having outstanding national and international importance under the Designation Scheme. It is also a registered charitable trust and relies on the generosity and support of users and friends. To find out more, see
  • For further information about the digital version of Mass Observation, visit

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


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