Frequently asked questions
Due to unprecedented demand, the Mass Observation Project is currently closed to new applications. We are reviewing the panel and will open the Project again soon. We are still accepting material relating to COVID-19 and diaries written on the 12th May 2020.
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about becoming an observer for Mass Observation. Please contact us if you can't find the answer to your question below.
What does taking part involve?
We hope you will reply to our Directives. These are normally sent out to you three times a year. They usually contain two or three different topics on which we would like you to report in the light of your own experience, including what you see and hear going on around you. The Directive is often made up of questions but it should not be treated as a questionnaire because it is most definitely not intended to be one. You can write as much or as little as you wish in reply.
Always include a "mini-biography" at the start of each part of your Directive. It is very helpful for researchers to see your age, occupation, where you live and your marital status. It saves them looking you up on our lists; it means that the information they use about you is up-to-date and it gives you control over how much you want to say about yourself. Please remember not to give your name or any information that may identify you directly.
How much you contribute depends mainly on how you feel and what you have time for. As our resources are limited, if you do not keep in touch with us for a year we will stop sending you Directives
How much should I write?
That depends entirely on you. We are never going to say that you've written too much or too little but we'd rather you wrote one or two lines than nothing at all. Don't worry about rambling or going off at a tangent. We know that some subjects inspire some people and leave others cold.
You must feel free to pick and choose and to write about your own experience. Stories about things that have happened to you are of special interest. Do remember, all the same, that 'negative reporting' is always valuable. When we had a Directive on cars and drivers, for example, it was important we heard from non-drivers as well as drivers. If you decide not to answer a particular Directive, or a particular part of a Directive, we like to know why. Is it lack of time? Lack of interest? Ill health? Or are there other reasons related to your feelings about the topic?
What kind of paper shall I use?
Any kind of paper, including the back of junk mail (but please remember to delete any identifiable information on the reverse of your contribution). If you are emailing, if possible, you should send it as a word document or a PDF.
We ask only that you always start a new section of your Directive reply on a new piece of paper so that the different topics can be detached and filed separately.
Must reports be typed?
No. They can be handwritten, typed, word-processed or spoken on to audiotape.
Can I send in tapes or videos?
Yes, although it would be helpful to discuss this with staff at the Mass Observation Archive by email or letter first.
Can I send in other pieces of writing, for example, diaries?
We no longer actively seek diaries and they are harder for us to manage but if you are a keen diarist, please send it in. We are also pleased to accept contributions on topics which we have not been able to cover in Directives. This could be a personal experience (for example, a holiday, an illness, a birth or death, an incident at work or in your community) or it may be your feelings about current issues and events. We will file them separately under the subject heading.
But a special plea....
Please don't send in large parcels of material without checking with us first. Our space is limited and we must only accept donations of material if they are closely related to our concerns. So if you find your grandmother's diary in the attic, please do think of us (and please don't throw it away!) but contact us to check that we can accept it. If you usually use our FREEPOST system please think twice before sending parcels costing over £5 in postage, or several small items which would be cheaper sent together.
Do you want newspaper cuttings or printed material?
Not usually. They are bulky and difficult to preserve. Newspapers are stored in larger libraries so we feel that it is important not to fill up our precious space with material that can be obtained elsewhere. However, we are interested in the occasional cutting if it is relevant to the piece you are writing, or where it illustrates a point. And we are happy to accept leaflets, photographs, labels, menus, adverts, cartoons, drawings, maps, diagrams and any other "visual aids" where they relate to your response.
Is there a deadline?
We don't usually specify a deadline unless we have a researcher in the Archive who is in a hurry to see the material. It is helpful to us if you send in your reply before the next Directive is due, say within 3 or 4 months. Occasionally, however, you may not have the time or inclination to write for a while, and we are still pleased to accept Directive replies which arrive late or in bulk.
Will I receive an acknowledgement?
We always try to ensure that you are told that your post has been safely received - if possible within four weeks of receiving it, though there are times when it can take longer. We produce a standard acknowledgement letter with some of the latest news to keep you in touch. Staff at the Archive may write to you personally if an individual reply is required. If you are ever concerned about safe receipt, please tell us or add a SAE to your envelope.
Does it matter if I reply late or even miss a Directive?
No. Sometimes correspondents are too busy to reply - or maybe they don't feel inspired by the theme of the Directive. This is fine, although we are always interested to know if you don't like the Directive and why. However, if you haven't been in touch with us for a year we will stop sending you Directives - we simply haven't got the resources to keep sending them out and we don't want to become a nuisance to someone who has lost interest. If you stop hearing from us, it is probably because over a year has elapsed since your last contact with us. If you write in, we can immediately re-instate you. On the other hand, if you do want to stop writing for us, please write and tell us why. It would save us postage and a lot of work.
Who sees my contributions?
When your contributions reach the Archive, they are opened, checked and recorded by staff at the Archive. We, unfortunately, do not have the time to read all your contributions in-depth, but most are read very carefully by a wide range of researchers including academics from different disciplines, for example, sociologists, psychologists, historians and geographers. We also have visits from students, school children and the media. Please remember that your responses will be read by researchers, so don't include any information that you are unhappy to share.
How is my material made available to researchers?
Replies to the Directives are made available to researchers as soon as we can get them ready. They are boxed up in batches according to the section of the directive. So there are boxes on our shelves labelled "Gulf War", "General Election 1997", "The Lottery", "Close Relationships", "Charles and Camilla" and so on. Inside the boxes, the replies are arranged in folders in MO number order. It is worth remembering that many researchers only see the writing you do in reply to one particular directive, so don't worry about repeating information which you gave in an earlier directive reply.
Researchers visit the reading rooms at The Keep. They are given basic information about each person (age, sex, marital status, current occupation and town of residence) so that they can set your writing in a social context. They are also shown the actual Directives and background information about the whole Project. Researchers are told that access to the material depends upon their respecting people's confidentiality and we keep a careful check on who sees the material and the ways it is used. Some researchers are also MO correspondents, by the way. Any MO correspondents can become researchers and visit whenever they wish by making an appointment.
How can I be sure that my privacy is respected?
We are very careful about the privacy of our correspondents. We issue everyone with a number. We ask you to write your number (rather than your name) on all your replies to Directives. Only members of the Archive staff can link your number to your name.
To increase your privacy, we strongly encourage you to use initials or made-up names for the people you mention, and to do your best not to inadvertently identify yourself within your reply. Please don't include your address or any information that may identify you personally.
The length of time that the Mass Observation Project has been running means that it provides researchers with exciting opportunities for longitudinal study (looking at a writer’s responses over a number of years). We work with researchers undertaking this kind of work to protect your identity.
Your self portrait, your photograph, any letters or diaries, and any other very personal material you send us, are all covered by a 50 year embargo. You can ask for a longer embargo if you wish - or a shorter one. Fifty years from the date of leaving the project seems to satisfy most people's needs for privacy. It is only fair to say, however, that in the last analysis, no information is truly secure. If you send in information about illicit activities, the Archive might not be able to protect your privacy any more than a priest or doctor could.
Do I have to respond?
You do not have to respond to all the Directive responses. Mass Observation is a voluntary activity, and we don’t want you to feel obliged to respond to every request we send to you. We understand that sometimes the theme is not of interest, you lack time, or it could raise challenging emotions. If you haven't been in touch with us for a year, we will stop sending you Directives as we will assume you no longer wish to take part. Please let us know if this is not the case.
What should I do if a Directive theme triggers an emotive reaction?
We are aware that some subjects can affect our Mass Observers emotionally and this can sometimes take people by surprise. If you experience a challenging response to the subject, then please seek support. If possible, talk to a friend or family member, alternatively the Samaritans 116 123 (lines are open 24hrs) and SANEline 0300 304 7000 (lines are open from 4.30pm-10.30pm).
Can my friends or members of my family read what I send to you?
We do not automatically allow friends or relatives to see your contributions, even if they are close family members. If you wish to ensure that your members of your family see what you have written either during your lifetime, or afterwards, we suggest you keep your own copies.
If you are happy for your family members to read what you have written, please write and say so. It is helpful for us to have your wishes on file. If we don't hear from you on this question, in writing, we shall assume that your contributions should remain completely anonymous, and we will do our best to ensure that even your nearest and dearest do not see your writing under your name.
Can my Mass Observation writings be published?
Most use of the Archive is by students for their essays, dissertations and theses. More senior scholars use the material for articles in journals or in teaching materials.
Sometimes we are asked for permission to use extracts from the Archive in books, films, TV or radio programmes. Providing mutually satisfactory agreements are made, the Trustees of the Archive are normally able to give their consent. In fact, the Archive depends on the income it receives from the fees and royalties from the publication of the early papers. Formal contracts with authors and publishers are negotiated for the Archive by our literary agent In London so you can be sure that our interests are professionally protected.
We therefore decided to ask our current correspondents to share the copyright of their MO writing with the Archive. You will receive a form about this. There is no obligation to share copyright but it is a way of ensuring that we have a formal agreement with you. Most requests to quote are for very small passages. Every precaution is taken to ensure that no identifiable information appears in public unless you have given your written permission.
Do you need more recruits?
We are constantly developing the Project and we try to attract people from sections of society who are under-represented among our correspondents. If you know someone who is very keen to join us, please ask them to write to us themselves. We prefer to hear from them directly. There is currently no recruitment policy and the makeup of the panel is reviewed annually. Any changes to the recruitment policy will be announced on this website.
Can I go public on being a Mass Observer?
Of course. It is up to you if you want to "come out" as a Mass Observer. However, please do not advertise on our behalf without checking with us. If you decide to write about being a Mass Observer for the local paper, or in the newsletter of an organisation, or get interviewed by local radio, please emphasise that you are talking/writing in a personal capacity.
If more information is required, you should refer the journalist/interviewer to the Mass Observation Archive. In the past, enthusiastic Mass Observers have sometimes prompted new volunteers to contact us with overwhelming results. We need to plan for the staff resources and the budget for to cope with a sudden influx of new correspondents. We don't like turning people away - and even apologising takes time and costs money!
By the way, if you are in the paper, on the radio or TV, or writing or speaking publically about Mass Observation, please let us know. If possible, send us a copy of your speech.
Do you accept "one-off" directive replies from friends and relatives of correspondents?
From time to time, people do send us a directive reply written by somebody else. We are very pleased to accept these contributions but they can cause us problems over copyright and confidentiality. If you want to enclose extra replies, please ask the person to:
Write on separate sheets of paper from your reply
Include a note of their sex, age, occupation and town/village of residence
Attach a statement signed by the writer saying that they make over copyright of the piece.
Then we can add it to the Archive in the usual way. Effectively they are becoming a correspondent, even if only for the one reply.
Can I leave the project?
Of course! No one should feel obliged to stay with us once they have lost interest or if their circumstances change. Please do tell us why you want to leave. If you would like to stay in touch, you can become a Friend of the Archive. In this way, you could support us financially (the amount of the subscription is up to you), come to open days at the Archive and receive our Bulletin without having to reply to directives.
Can I visit the Archive?
Yes. The Archive is a public resource in the care of the University of Sussex and is located at The Keep. All visits to The Keep reading rooms must be by appointment, you can find out how to do this here. We also sometimes hold open days or seminars which gives you a chance to meet staff at the Archive, see displays of material and talk to researchers. These are advertised on our website or in the Bulletin. If you do plan to visit please e-mail us and let us know.
Where do I send my contributions?
Please send all your post (letters, Directives, self portraits etc) to the Mass Observation Archive. We have a Freepost system so there is no need to use a stamp unless you wish to. Please note that the postal code is different if you use the Freepost system.
With a stamp:
The Mass Observation Archive
University of Sussex
Freepost system (no stamp needed):
The Mass Observation Archive
Brighton BN1 9BP
Can I send my contributions by email?
How is the Project funded?
We have two sources of support: the University of Sussex and the Mass Observation Archive Trust funds. The University through its budget for the main Library, is our main source of support. For MOP staff salaries and all other activities, including the collection of new material, we rely on the Trust fund. This has been built up from fees charged to media or institutional users, or from royalties and fees from publications, in particular the digital publication of material by Adam Matthew Digital from the first phase of MO activity (1937-50s).
In 1991, we set up a Friends of the Archive Scheme and financial support from our much appreciated Friends has been vital in our being able to buy equipment and support salaries. Without the Friends' support, the contemporary Project would not have survived. We also now frequently collaborate with researchers who are asked to make a contribution to our costs.