A galaxy far, far away? The challenges of archive access in the here and now

14 September 2017

By Eleanor King

I am a graduate archive intern working for the University of Sussex’s Special Collections held here at The Keep, and until a few years ago, I had never visited an archive. Looking back, I am not sure what preconceived ideas I had about what might go on in a building like this. Whilst I had no doubt as to the intellectual and cultural value of the collections stored here, I don’t think I had any real idea of the range of material, or the variety of ways it can be used or interpreted. I must admit, though, that my lack of knowledge of archives, or how to navigate an archival catalogue had, in the past, made me apprehensive about engaging with archival material. But then I had never been to The Keep!

Since joining the team here, I have been inspired by the variety of work that goes on, and the range and depth of skills and knowledge possessed by the people who work here. As I consider furthering my career in the archive sector, I am now in a better position to recognise there are many challenges that the sector, and therefore the individuals working within it, face and of one these is user access.

Archive intern Eleanor King working to promote access to material held at The Keep

Archive intern Eleanor King working to promote access to material held at The Keep

Last Christmas, like all sensible people, I went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and, following repeated viewings, it got me thinking about archival access and the challenges, or perceived challenges, people might face when trying to engage with archival material.

But how can a science fiction film, set in a galaxy far, far away, inspire thinking about contemporary archive access? In the final third of the film the crew of Rogue One, a group of rebels endeavouring to destroy the Imperial super weapon, land on the planet Scarif, home to…the Imperial Archive! Here, the rebels hope to infiltrate the intimidating Citadel housing the archive, navigate the extensive catalogue, locate the plans to the super weapon and then transmit them to the rebel fleet orbiting the planet.

What occurred to me on watching Rogue One, admittedly an unlikely source of inspiration when thinking about archives, was the similarities between the rebel struggle to access valuable data, and the perceived struggle many feel they will encounter on visiting an archive for the first time. From the remote location of the archive building, to the vast, undecipherable catalogue, the perception that archives are secret, locked away places, with the contents confusing and difficult to interpret, is a common one. It is not by accident, I would argue, that the makers of Rogue One placed the Imperial Archive in a citadel. For centuries, places of worship were the home to records and manuscripts, only accessible to the initiated and the educated, and there is still a perception that if you are neither, your access will be denied. At The Keep, however, and in archives across the country, there is work going on to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding archives and their use, and importantly, their users.

Although at The Keep we have many ‘regulars’ (and we couldn’t exist without them), work is also being done to broaden our reach and encourage archive use by members of the community who may not have considered using an archive before, or for whom an archive is out of reach. Beyond Boxes is one such project that aims to break down the barriers some marginalised groups might face when accessing archival material. This two-year, HLF-funded, project led by the Mass Observation Archive is working in partnership with Brighton Housing Trust, Blind Veterans UK and Lewes Prison to address access issues these groups face. How can you use a service that requires fixed personal details, such as an address, for registration? How can a person with a visual impairment ‘read’ a document? And how can you engage with an archive if you can’t physically get there, or freely access the material?

As a result of this project, The Keep has received new technology to enable visually impaired users to access our material and a ‘buddy’ scheme has been introduced this summer to assist service users with specific needs or access issues. The project has also worked with both Lewes Prison and Brighton Housing Trust to shape the Mass Observation directives for this year, and both groups have contributed to the 12th May Day Diary for the archive.

There is also extensive work being done daily behind the scenes here to engage with a variety of users including school groups, the LGBTQ community and students. I recently assisted in a teaching session led by Mass Observation Outreach Officer Suzanne Rose, working with a group of year nine students who had never been to an archive before. Our subject was World War 2 and we were instructed it was ‘not to feel like a lesson’. Using material from Mass Observation’s World War II collection, we encouraged the students to assess the material and interpret it back to the group using one of several methods including rap, song, a drama sketch, a news report etc. It is a daunting task trying to get 30 14-year-olds excited about archival material but they really embraced the chance to be creative with the material we had given them. Feedback from the session included comments like ‘I did not expect to enjoy this, but it was really fun and I learnt something new’. By engaging young people in working with archival material, we can start to break down perceived barriers, and give them the confidence to access material that is held for them. I wish such opportunities had been open to me earlier. Certainly, our rebel friends would have a much easier time of it had they been better prepared.

Sadly, the arts and heritage sector are facing uncertain times and places such as The Keep are having to continually justify their existence as council budgets are squeezed ever tighter. If we cannot prove our worth as a place of value to the whole community, not just the privileged few, then we risk facing redundancy, and material meant to be used by everyone, will return to being used only by the few. I have had the great pleasure to have spent the last 18 months cataloguing the archive of Lord Richard Attenborough, former Chancellor of the University of Sussex, film maker, charity worker, businessman (I could go on, he did!) and some words of his have never been far from my mind since starting here. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1994, Attenborough stated ‘the arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our well-being, to our very existence, as eating and breathing. Access to them should not be restricted to the privileged few. Nor are they the playground of the intelligentsia. The arts are for everyone – and failure to include everyone diminishes us all’. Attenborough delivered this speech 23 years ago, but for those of us working in the sector today, they seem perhaps more pertinent now than they ever have. I am proud to be working in such a fascinating and important institution that is constantly striving to improve access, reach out and engage across the community from the regular visitor to the apprehensive student, to those who never knew we were here at all, let alone here for them. The collections held here at The Keep belong to all of us, and although much of it represents our past, they are kept for our future.

New Diary Day marks International Day of People with Disabilities

23 November 2016

By Anthony McCoubrey

As part of International Day of People with Disabilities, the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex is inviting people to get involved and keep a day diary on Saturday 3rd December 2016.

The Mass Observation Archive has been recording everyday life in Britain since 1937 and we have collected material relating to a variety of topics and people’s experiences.  We continue to do this today through our panel of writers and our May 12th Diary Day, when members of the public can contribute their day diary to the archive.

This year, we are holding an additional Diary day on 3rd December as part of our Beyond Boxes project. Funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, this two-year access and engagement project is working to address barriers, whether they be attitudinal, educational, social or physical, that people may experience when trying to access archive collections.

We would like to encourage people to record their day on 3rd December and send it to the Mass Observation Archive, which is housed at The Keep in Falmer, where it will be kept and used by researchers, students and members of the public. All diary entries are anonymised so the diarist’s identity will not be made public, nor will any of their personal details.

By working in partnership with different groups and getting the wider public engaged we hope to ensure that our archive includes and celebrates the diversity of people’s lives and experiences in 21st century Britain.


Please do get in touch if you would like to get involved with the Beyond Boxes project. To record your diary for the Mass Observation Archive on 3rd December 2016, please look at our website for further information, templates and advice on completing and submitting your diary.

Partnership logos




Meet the Staff: Suzanne Rose, Education and Outreach Officer for Mass Observation

23 September 2016

‘Sometimes young people walk into The Keep without any idea of what an archive is. ‘Is it a castle?’ ‘Is it a crypt?’ That’s where my job begins!

‘Tapping into an archive informs and enhances the lives of individuals and communities. My role is to make the Mass Observation (MO) archive as accessible as possible, introducing it to schools, students and community groups. The MO archive itself is only one of scores of collections which are stored on the shelves behind the scenes at The Keep; it’s basically a huge collection of the diaries, opinions and experiences of ordinary people that were written during the Second World War, and continues to the present day. Most archives are finite collections – they are consulted and put back on the shelves – but we often ask people working with MO to feed back their own responses and experiences so it grows as a historical resource for future generations.

Suzanne Rose, Education and Outreach Officer for Mass Observation

‘As soon as I started here I applied for funding for a project called ‘Mass Education’ and was fortunate to get a two-year grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Over 2013-2015 we worked with hundreds of kids, using the MO archive to deliver learning sessions. We went into schools and the children came to The Keep. These sessions were geared towards history (the Second World War), literacy (keeping diaries), and research and study skills (observing and recording). Our learning sessions are available to schools visiting The Keep and more information and learning resources can be found on the MOA website.

‘Partnering with local organisations is really important in my work. MO is currently a heritage partner in a joint project with Photoworks called Into the Outside. Young people taking part in the project invited their contemporaries at Brighton Pride weekend to share their experiences of LGBTQ+ life. This worked positively for all those involved; it informed their sense of community, it gave their lives and lifestyle choices recognition and their work will form part of a new Queer Youth archive at The Keep. The photography from the project will be exhibited as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial in October. We also partnered with The Nimbus Group on a project called ‘Giddy Brighton‘, where young people from Longhill School interviewed older residents of Brighton on what it was like being a teenager in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. They went on to develop a location-based app which can be used by anyone walking through Brighton – you can just stop and listen to the memories associated with that particular place. It’s wonderful.

‘Our latest project called ‘Beyond Boxes’ is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It will enable us to reach out to diverse, perhaps more marginalised community groups, who might find accessing the archive more difficult. We are working with Blind Veterans UK and Brighton Housing Trust to offer sessions at The Keep and outreach sessions in the wider community. We’ll also be delivering sessions in Lewes Prison, where we hope material from the archive will inspire prisoners’ creative writing and develop literacy skills.

‘This is a part-time job so you can understand that it’s never done! And the teaching bits can be quite challenging. I worked with 150 Year 8 children during one day just before the summer holidays – that was memorable! But the reward is seeing people access this public service, who wouldn’t normally find it easy. And the great thing is, once people have visited in a group, they can come back on their own, knowing that The Keep offers a friendly welcome and a chance to explore the archives.’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman


Introducing ‘Beyond Boxes’, a new Mass Observation Archive project

13 September 2016

By Anthony McCoubrey

The Mass Observation Archive (MOA) is working in partnership with Blind Veterans UK, the Brighton Housing Trust and Lewes Prison to open up access to archive collections.

The two-year Beyond Boxes project, which launched last week, is supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project aims to break down the barriers many people face in trying to use archives, be these physical, attitudinal or educational, to ensure that heritage is open and accessible to all.

Beyond Boxes will include a range of activities and events, such as a diary day in December for International Day of Disabled People, along with a programme of outreach and in-house workshops at The Keep. The project will enable participants to explore, debate and learn about daily life in Britain and make contributions to the Mass Observation Archive that reflect their own lives and experiences of life in 21st century Britain.

Anthony McCoubrey, Beyond Boxes Project Coordinator, said: ‘Heritage comes in many social and cultural forms; from historic buildings, to the natural world, to individual possessions.

‘But it is also tradition passed down through personal stories, experiences, or writings. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute their personal heritage so that it is recorded, represented and made available to a wider audience through the Mass Observation Archive.”

Katherine Bradley, Members Activities Manager at Blind Veterans UK, said: “Blind Veterans UK is excited to be part of this project. It is wonderful that the experiences of the veterans the charity supports will be recorded and available as part of this project, as well as that all records will be accessible for those with a vision-impairment.”

Sara Peskett, at Brighton Housing Trust, said: ‘People who are street homeless face multiple barriers to accessing and engaging with heritage in Brighton and Hove. Despite forming a significant part of the community within the city, the heritage of people who are rough sleeping and their thoughts, experiences and memories are underrepresented. Beyond Boxes is a fantastic initiative providing many opportunities for clients of BHT to engage with and actively contribute to the historical archives.”

Emma Bach, Librarian at Lewes Prison, said: ‘Beyond Boxes will help to remove barriers to our archives and capture voices outside of the mainstream. It can also offer prisoners opportunities to identify where they ‘are’ now, inspire goals for change and hopes for a different future – vital steps in the process of rehabilitation.’

For further information about the project, please get in touch by contacting The Keep on 01273 482349, or contact the Mass Observation Archive at moa@sussex.ac.uk. And you can keep updated about the project in the Keep’s blog space.




The Keep News: Mass Observation Theatre Jukebox

18th September 2014

By Jessica Scantlebury, Mass Observation Archive

The Mass Observation Theatre Jukebox is now at The Keep. The Theatre Jukebox is an interactive arcade-style cabinet that tells the story of Mass Observation through photographs, audio and moving images. It has been created by the  design and theatre collective, ‘Stand + Stare’ (www.standandstare.com/about) who have also made Jukeboxes for the Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC Bristol.

The Mass Observation Theatre Jukebox is on display at The Keep as part of the Mass Education Project (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund)  throughout September until early January 2014. Next time you visit The Keep please remember to have a play on the Jukebox!