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Collecting diaries

Collecting diaries

Collecting Diaries

Personal diaries form a vital part of the Mass Observation Archive. Between 1939 and 1965 around 500 men and women sent their diaries to the project, thus contributing to an invaluable documentation of personal experience and feelings during a time of great upheaval for many. With the first request for day-to-day diaries sent out in August 1939, the contributions cover the whole war period, from the declaration of war in September 1939, up until 1945 and beyond.

For researchers and historians, the vivid and personal accounts that the diaries give of food rationing, loved ones lost, war efforts, the Blitz and the everyday life in the shadow of the war is invaluable. With little direction given, the diaries differ significantly in style, thus giving evidence of the writers’ personalities and attitudes.

Day diaries

Apart from longer running diaries, the MOA also hold a large amount of day diaries, so called Day Surveys. These started when volunteer writers were asked to document their day on the 12th February 1937. Subsequently, day diaries were written on the 12th of every month, documenting by the hour the activities and thoughts of the diarist, in work and leisure, the ordinary and extraordinary.

Diaries were important for Mass Observation as an ideal tool for capturing immediate experience and feelings. The diaries are also able to give detailed evidence of how people’s private lives are affected by public realities.

Further reading

Several books have been published based on the Mass Observation diaries, here is a sample:

Broad, R & Fleming, S (eds). Nella Last's War, Profile Books, 2006.
Garfield, S. Our Hidden Lives: The everyday diaries of a forgotten Britain 1945-1948, Ebury Press, 2004.
Garfield, S. We are at War: The diaries of five ordinary people in extraordinary times, Ebury Press, 2006.
Garfield, S. Private Battles: Our intimate diaries - how the war almost defeated us, Ebury Press, 2007.
Koa Wing, S. Our Longest Days: A people's history of the second world war, Profile Books, 2008.
Malcomson, R. (ed). Love and War in London: a Woman's Diary 1939-1942, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005.
Malcolmson, R and Malcolmson, P. (eds.) A Soldier in Bedfordshire 1941-1942: The Diary of Private Denis Argent, Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, 2009.
Taylor, A and Taylor, I (eds). The Secret Annexe: An anthology of war diarists, Canongate, 2004.
Sheridan, D. (ed) Wartime Women: A Mass Observation Anthology, 1937-1945, Phoenix, New edition 2002.

Free downloadable copy of the booklet ‘The Mass Observation Diaries: An Introduction’, 1991.

View the diaries from MO archive