Archives of the People

Patricia Cleveland-Peck looks at fresh projects and older initiatives to record the experiences and opinions of ‘ordinary people’.

Of all the information we in this age leave behind us, what will be of most use to future historians? Will it be newspapers, official statistics or governmental records such as Hansard? All these undoubtedly have their place, but for the social historian there are several other archive sources currently being collated which will give a less formal but much richer picture of how we live now. Social history has always been brought alive by the personal accounts of individuals and while the wealthy and powerful tend to leave behind material about themselves in the form of journals, documents and autobiographies, the opinions of the non-elite, have been harder to come by.

Mass-Observation was the first movement in Britain to actively try to plug this gap. It was started in the 1930s by Charles Madge, poet and journalist, Tom Harrisson, anthropologist, and Humphrey Jennings, documentary film-maker, who felt there was such a discrepancy between what the newspapers were reporting about the Abdication Crisis and what the people in the streets and pubs were saying about it, that they determined to find a way of recording what people really thought.

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