Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Using Observing the 80s – Dr Daryl Leeworthy

by Lucy Robinson

One of the most exciting things about the Observing the 80s project is never quite knowing how and why it will be used. As a team we always felt that it was important that the raw data should be an open as possible in more ways than one. Not only is everything available under a Creative Common (CC BY) License we made the decision only to loosely order the raw documents around our themes, rather than have them tagged  by key words or searchable.  This was because we wanted to balance the integrity of the documents themselves, with our feelings that we shouldn’t try and second guess how people were going to use them. So really enjoyed seeing how Daryl Leeworthy had used the Observing the 80s resources in his blog post 1986: A Brief History of a Year that Changed.  Its the sort of work that exemplifies the personal and political nature of the histories in our archive. He very kind agreed to share some reflections on how and why he used our resources.


Here is what Daryl wrote:

Nearly a year ago, I attended the Unofficial Histories conference organised by Fiona Cosson, Cath Feely and Ian Gwinn and came into contact with the Observing the Eighties project from the University of Sussex. I had used the Mass Observation Archive for research purposes since my PhD and was excited to hear of the materials available online as I steadily extended ‘my period’ from its inter-war heart to something that was able to encompass anything from 1850 onwards. It was with this in mind that in a recent post about my birth year over at, a blog I’ve been running for nearly 18 months, I turned straightaway to the project’s website and began trawling through its holdings. Familiar themes leapt out at me, of course, from the Miners’ Strike to Thatcherism and beyond, but I was interested in people’s day-to-day reactions to events of an entire year and so I focused my attention on the diaries and directive responses submitted to the archive by volunteers nearly thirty years ago.

I found material about the Challenger disaster, about Chernobyl, about Thatcher’s deregulation agenda, about the World Cup in Mexico, to be sure. But I also found the gaps: nothing about the assassination of Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden, nothing about the emergence of Microsoft, nothing about the passing away of Harold MacMillan either. Proof that we historians often prioritise things that were much less important to the everyday lives of the people we lean on for our evidence – even though each of these themes was present in the newspaper and on the television and radio news broadcasts. But that’s the nature of contemporary history: it always runs the risk of someone saying to you ‘I don’t remember it that way’.

1986 – the year I was born – was a year of significant change and contrast: the sudden halt of the American space program, the launch into space of the Soviet space station, Mir; the assassination of Olof Palme on the streets of Stockholm, the peaceful passing of Britain’s last ‘Victorian’ Prime Minister; the destruction of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the rise of Microsoft and the home computer in the west; the hand of god in Mexico, the boycott of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. The opening up of the Mass Observation archives by the Observing the Eighties project provided me with sources that enabled a balance to be struck between the privileged observations of the newspapers and the broadcast media and the relatively unprivileged observations of ordinary Britons. As that history begins to be written, this project leads the way in offering precisely those sources that historians of other periods both rely upon and lament the absence of. A truly inspiring insight, indeed!

  1. Tuesday, March 18th, 2014