Mass Observation (1937-2017) and Life Writing

MO Diaries and Their Editors




diaries, Mass Observation, World War Two, editing, research ethics


In August 1939, MO asked its volunteer Observers 'to begin keeping day-to-day personal diaries of everything that happened to them, the conversations they heard and took part in, their general routine of life, and the impact of the war on it’. More than 450 individual diarists wrote for MO during the war. Each diarist had to work out their own way of ‘observing’, and to create a comfortable authorial voice expressing their very varied personal concerns and experiences. Common themes included: outbreak of war; evacuation of children; the blackout; the call-up for compulsory service; and what was thought of as ‘morale’. The diaries show keen minds struggling hard to make sense of the unfolding war news, striving to understand the deeper currents of history and future possibilities in international affairs. Other themes concerned the home front: the wartime difficulties around food and transport; attitudes to class, and the arrival of American troops; and the hopes and fears for post-war reconstruction. This article reflects on its authors' considerable experience of selecting and preparing MO diaries for publication. Editors play a prominent role in the presentation of modern life history. This involves technical and/or literary judgments (about the length and quality of texts, the provision of supplementary material), in relation to the requirements of particular publishing formats (commercial or scholarly). It also involves ethical questions. MO diaries, once submitted, could not be revised; their authors were promised anonymity. Hence publication often requires the consent of the diarists (though few are still alive) or their heirs; and measures are sometimes required to protect the identities of people mentioned.

Author Biography

Robert Malcolmson

Patricia and Robert Malcolmson are social historians whose most recent authored books are Women at the Ready: The Remarkable Story of the Women’s Voluntary Services on the Home Front (London: Little, Brown, 2013; pb. 2014) and Wartime Cumbria, 1939-1945: Aspects of Life and Work (Kendal: Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2017). They have also recently edited for publication two wartime diaries that were not written for Mass Observation: A Vicar’s Wife in Oxford: The Diary of Madge Martin, 1938-1943 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Oxfordshire Record Society, The Boydell Press, 2018) and The Diary of Leah Aynsley, 1943-1946 (Martlesham, Suffolk: Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, Boydell and Brewer, 2020). The Malcolmsons live in Nelson, British Columbia.





Mass Observation (1937-2017) and Life Writing