Monday, March 31st, 2014

History 3490 at York University, Toronto

by Lucy Robinson


The most exciting thing about moving into the second year of the Observing the 80s project is seeing how people are using the resources.

Project hero Prof  Stephen Brooke has been inviting his students at York University, Toronto, to engage with the resources as part of their coursework for History 3490: 20th Century Britain in Film and Culture.  Professor Brooke has written for us before and has integrated our resources into this year’s course’  focus on the 1980s – the intent was to use a variety of sources, some cultural (like Robert Wyatt, ‘Shipbuilding‘, The Specials, ‘Ghost Town’, documentaries like The Battle for Brixton [2006], and films like The Long Good Friday and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), and some social and political, to think about the experience of the eighties. The Mass-Observation material was the basis for their research assignment – the students had to pick a subject and write a short paper on the basis of the directives, responses and meta data.


We invited the students to share their reflections with us.  Here are the responses from Zainab Bari, Genevieve O’Grady, and Brittany Nolan who are members of the third-year history class on the history of Britain in the 1980s at York University, Toronto.

Zainab Bari: “Observing the 80s brings together a remarkable range of sources that offer insight into life in 1980s Britain. I used the site to conduct research for a history paper and was intrigued by the topics covered and impressed by the convenient manner in which they were organized. I feel that the expanse of primary sources the site makes available to the public is especially useful for people who were born after the 1980s, as it provides them with an alternative to experiencing life during the decade firsthand.

I find that I am particularly interested in the responses to the Mass Observation Directives, which is unsurprising, as I based my paper entirely on people’s accounts of the Royal Wedding in 1981. What I liked most about the responses was the fact that the authenticity of the sources has been maintained. As the diary entries have been made available in their original format, a number of them are handwritten and most of them are largely unedited. This leaves them open to interpretation and also offers further insight into the lives of the respondents by alluding to their age, social status or level of education.

I have yet to explore the recordings from the Oral History Collections and the documents from the University of Sussex Library, but I look forward to doing so. I will definitely return to the Mass Observation archive for additional reading, especially to read more of the special reports, which I believe add extra dimension to the participants’ responses.”

Genevieve O’Grady wrote “When Professor Brooke first introduced the assignment to the class, I was legitimately excited. Once I began to explore the site I was not disappointed. The material was easy to use, unique, insightful, and (most of all) it was fun. Observing the 80s is a well organized collection of invaluable material as the directives and responses bring the reader right back to the time of the event. Looking at the Falklands 1982 files, I gained access to the respondents’ thoughts, fears, concerns, and even family emergencies. I would recommend this site to anyone, whether they’re looking for research material or simply an interesting read. As a grateful student and amateur historian, I would like to thank those behind the collection and electronic preservation of these insights to the past.”

Zainab and Genevieve have very generously agreed to share their assignments with us.  In Zainab’s paper The Royal Wedding: Its Impact on the British Public you will see that she has brought out the intertwined relationship between debates around national or familial institutions, and the personal – like the importance of making a nice cup of tea.  Genevieve’s paper, Rule Britannia Observing the Falklands War through Mass Observation, builds from the two directives on the Falklands, thinking about how the archive guided content as well as the ways in which historians can use individual responses to think about how public sentiment can be evaluated.  I felt that their papers and Brittany’s reflections exemplify the sort of creative possibilities students can bring to the project.


Brittany Nolan: “Extracting my own conclusions from the correspondents’ responses was refreshing. I did not have to rely on secondary material to write about the 1980’s—I just looked directly at people’s firsthand experiences during the decade. Mass Observation offers intimate perspectives to explore and the results were an informative but human analysis. It was great to be able to see the contrasts between correspondents’ responses. Some chose to focus on their personal experiences: going on vacations, buying new VCRs and becoming grandparents. Others barely mentioned their own lives despite the hardships they have might have endured. I think this contrast between correspondents’ different experiences is the most rewarding part of using Mass Observation.” 

If anyone else has students who have engaged with the sources, please do ask them to contribute to the blog.  Student collaboration was at the heart of the source selection and it is at the heart of the new meanings being constructed through use of the resources.