Q&A: Martha Fogg of Adam Matthew Digital on the Mass Observation Project

Martha Fogg of Adam Matthew Digital describes this database that charts the social history of Britain.

Martha Fogg, deputy managing director, Adam Matthew Digital, led the development and production of the Mass Observation Project.

LJ: What is the Mass Observation Project (MOP)?

Martha Fogg: The MOP is an extraordinary and unique life-writing archive held at the University of Sussex. It was launched in 1981 as a rebirth of the original 1937 Mass Observation, a pioneering social survey whose founders’ aim was to document the social history of Britain by recruiting ordinary people to write about their lives and opinions. The same goals inform the MOP, which gathers in-depth, highly personal responses on a vast range of subjects from hundreds of volunteers (current subjects are COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter). Still growing, it is one of the most important sources available for qualitative social data in the UK.

The digital resource by Adam Matthew provides complete digital access to the archive from 1981–2009 (the first module, covering the 1980s, published this year; a further two modules will follow in 2021–22).

What made this collection a good choice for a database?

Adam Matthew Digital published the original Mass Observation Archive, 1937–1955, as a digital resource through a long-standing partnership with the University of Sussex. We knew that the modern MOP material had become increasingly popular with researchers, echoing trends toward a broader interest in the history of the 1980s and 1990s.

What were some of the challenges of digitizing the responses?

The archive was already anonymized, but with the material being so modern, we needed to ensure that we were publishing with the highest level of consideration for privacy. So we undertook a full review of the content and redacted any information within the volunteers’ responses that might affect their anonymity (or anyone else’s), such as references to their location or to other individuals. It was a huge job (not least because the early volunteers ignored instructions not to put their names on their submissions) but an absolute priority, both for the archive and for us as publisher.

What themes emerge as users look over the responses?

The variety within the archive is what makes it stand out—I’m amazed by the sheer array of wildly varying questions that are put to the volunteers. Subjects that respondents are asked to write about range from the personal (“having an affair,” “body piercing and tattooing”) to everyday life (“using telephones,” “owning pets”) to the historically significant (“the Gulf War,” “the death of Diana”). Perhaps the most interesting and consistent theme is the interplay between the personal and the public. The archive gives a real-time insight into people’s lived experience, without the benefit of hindsight and before events become “historicized,” which is fascinating and quite unique. It can be surreal to read a response to a political or global event that becomes completely derailed by the respondent’s account of how it impacted their dinner plans.

What are some of the best ways to navigate this database?

Digitizing this type of sociological source material allows it to be used to its fullest potential, transforming possibilities for analysis of the data. A great way to start exploring the material is by using the “key topic” filters, such as “Europe” or “childhood.” Other users might be more interested in following the responses of a single individual—a particularly rich way of mining the content for those who are interested in the life-writing aspect of the archive. The material is enhanced by the application of Handwriting Text Recognition (HTR), which allows for full text searchability of handwritten responses as well as typescript ones.

Do you have a favorite response?

The response to the spring 1990 directive ”Retrospective on the 1980s” by H2283—the only response he appears to have submitted. Most observers responded to this directive by outlining their thoughts on the major current events of the decade. H2283 does this, discussing the Falklands War, consumerism, and the Irish Republican Army, but he also tells us how he had changed, too. He writes about his acceptance that he would never get married, his later realization that this was because he was gay, and his interest in personal growth through the environmental movement. For me this is Mass Observation in a single response—public and personal, inward- and outward-looking. Why didn’t he write more?

Did anything surprise you as you worked on the Mass Observation Project?

As a child of the 1980s, what surprised me is just how different the lives, opinions, and attitudes of the 1980s Mass Observers seem, compared to now. Even the language and forms of expression that the writers use seem old-fashioned. It was rather disconcerting from a personal point of view and made me feel extremely old.

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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