Swansea University: How to Use Primary Sources

Course:  Second Year Skills Module (How to Use Primary Sources): Twentieth Century Urban History Strand


Member of Faculty: Dr Tom Allbeson


The skills module at Swansea runs throughout the three years of an undergraduate history degree. In year one, lectures and seminars focus on how to interrogate secondary literature. In year two, lectures and seminars look at how to work with primary sources. In year three, the skills module consists of the final-year dissertation – independent research built on the skills learnt in years one and two.


Mass Observation Online is one of the collections of primary sources used to teach the year two portion of this course. It sits alongside other examples of primary source work, such as a visit to the local city archives.


The subject librarian at Swansea runs a class each year in which he introduces Mass Observation to the students and shows them how to use the online site. The students then have weekly two-hour seminars in which they work with different primary source collections. At least one of these classes will be entirely dedicated to working with Mass Observation Online.


Ahead of the seminar class, students are asked to use the resource to investigate urban life in twentieth-century Britain. Dr Allbeson provides a series of topics from which students can choose their favourite (wartime living, policing, etc) in order to focus research, as there are a vast range of topics available in the resource. In the seminar, they discuss which sources they found, what the material says about their topic, and any conclusions they have drawn from the primary sources. The focus on the process of investigation, rather than the conclusions drawn. The map is also a useful feature for research into specific locations or regions, narrowing down results by area.


This module carries a 3,000-word assessment, but the principle reason behind it is to introduce students to a range of different primary source resources at Swansea, which they can then use for their dissertations and in other modules. Students in other twentieth-century history modules, for example, return to Mass Observation for use in their essays.


More information on Mass Observation Online is available here.