Social Science blog

8 posts from September 2013

30 September 2013

Reminder - Call for Papers: Languages and the First World War

Languages and the First World War

The British Library & University of Antwerp

International Conference, 18-19-20 June 2014

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War coincides with the fading of direct memory of the period. Few can remember the linguistic experience of wartime in the speech of those directly or indirectly involved, but the linguistic traces of combat and civilian life, in and out of war zones, remain.

The term ‘no man’s land’, for instance, came into general use in English during the First World War, referring to inhabitable areas that saw the fiercest of the fighting between the two sides of the conflict; the use of the term, many centuries earlier referring to an isolated patch of land outside the City of London, is indicative of a pattern of language-change produced by the war – by 1920 ‘Niemandsland’ was a widely used term in German. In the varied theatres of war, the home fronts, training camps, war offices, hospitals and supply trains, language shifts happened, in which the dialects and languages of the various parties involved influenced one another, and in which new language and new language use emerged through new technologies of destruction and communication.

The idea for a conference on the linguistic experience and legacy of the war arose from research into the sociolinguistics of the war (especially the Western Front) and the immediate post-war period in the UK, particularly with reference to how terms had crossed linguistic boundaries, including between hostile linguistic groups.  The conference aims to be truly international and interdisciplinary.

The conference will take place on 18, 19 & 20 June 2014.

The University of Antwerp will host the first day, and the British Library will host the third. The interim day will be for travel between the two sites, with a possible visit to In Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres arranged for the morning of 19 June. There will be a book launch and public lecture at the British Library on the evening of 19 June. Eurostar travel between the two Brussels and London only takes two hours.

Abstracts of 300 words need to be sent to by 1 December 2013, 4pm.

Notification of acceptance will be sent on 20 th January 2014.

Papers may be given in languages other than English, with synopses available in English.

Call for Papers PDF

20 September 2013

London Calling

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Sociolinguistics, writes a lovely jubbly post about the enormous diversity in the way English is spoken in our capital city. Read the full post here.

18 September 2013

Longitude? It's Patently Obvious

Katy Barrett, a final year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, writes about the problem of measuring longitude in the eighteenth century and how researching this led her to the British Libary's pamphlet and patent collections.

Blog readers of a certain age will remember well one of my favourite lines from Nick Park's animation Wallace and Gromit. As the villainous robotic dog Preston operates a replica of his Wash-o-matic, Wallace yells ‘That’s My Machine! I've got patent pending on that!’ This simple phrase sets Wallace up as the archetypal nutty inventor, who tinkers about with bizarre machines in his garage and then attempts to sell them to a naive public. I have kept thinking back to Wallace recently as I have worked on proposals for a scheme seen as similarly ‘nutty’ in the eighteenth century.

This was the problem of measuring longitude at sea. By the early 1700s, Europeans had, of course, been ploughing the oceans for centuries, but it was in this period that expansion of colonial trade and international naval warfare made it crucial to be able to get from A to B safely and in a predictable amount of time. To navigate effectively you need to know your place on the globe in relationship to two points: latitude and longitude. Latitude is fairly easy to measure by celestial observations as it is linked to the fixed points of the poles and the line of the equator. But, longitude has no such stable markers (even the 0 meridian at Greenwich was not agreed until an international conference in 1884), and required the development of accurate instruments and complex mathematics. The British government therefore passed an Act in 1714 to encourage proposals of new methods to measure longitude at sea. The Act established a Board of Commissioners to judge proposals, with staggered reward money for any successful ones. Proposals could win ten, fifteen or twenty thousand pounds for finding longitude to within sixty, forty and thirty geographical miles respectively.1

This represented a very large amount of money in the eighteenth century, and so attracted proposals on a broad spectrum from serious inventors, to fortune hunters, to charlatans. 'The twenty thousand pounds' became a hopeful reference equivalent to winning one of the popular contemporary lotteries. This meant that all proposals rapidly became tarred with the same brush in the public imagination, in press reports, and even used by contributors to discredit their competitors. In August 1752, the editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, John Nichols, found it necessary to publish a notice ‘To the Gentlemen who have sent us Proposals on the Longitude’, advertising that ‘many schemes have been sent us, which to publish would do no honour to their authors nor service to the community…some for effecting utter impossibility…The authors of all such will not, ‘tis hoped, blame us for suppressing their papers.’2

Likewise, pamphlets featured criticisms of each other's proposals. 'They're all trying to con you but me' became a standard argument in published longitude pamphlets. William Whiston was a particular target of criticism and satire for his 1714 proposal of using rockets sent up from ships moored at specific longitudes.3 A pamphlet by Jeremy Thacker commented of Whiston and his collaborator Humphrey Ditton, that they had ‘sprung the Twenty Thousand Pounds, and as I hope to get it, I ought to be civil to them...poor Mr. W-----n has been so often handled as a Longitudinarian, and a Latitudinarian…that it would be as barbarous as ungrateful for me to Insult over him.' This was the satirical background to the figure solving longitude that William Hogarth included in his 1735 engraving of Bedlam, the contemporary madhouse, in his A Rake's Progress.

Yet, inventors were also trying to make serious proposals. In 1735 Caleb Smith and William Ward proposed a new type of quadrant, and in their preface bemoaned how proposals were so universally ridiculed, saying 'The various Idle Schemes and Chimerical Projects that have been offered as Discoveries of the Longitude, have so much prejudiced Men’s Minds against all Propositions of this sort, and brought so much Disgrace on the Projectors, that every Attempt to solve this valuable Problem, is now ridiculed as the effect of a weak, or a distempered Brain.'5 For, the point was, partly, that a trial and monetary reward from the Board of Longitude provided not only the finances to develop an invention but also a means of establishing priority and ownership in the ideas behind it in the days in which the concept of intellectual property was still in its infancy.

WEB Christopher Irwin 2

Above: the first page of Christopher Irwin's patent specification of 1758. Public Domain Mark

The vast majority of these longitude pamphlets (as well as those that satirise them) are now in the British Library, and therefore also available on Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO). What struck me as I worked on these sources is how many longitude proposals came to the BL through the Patent Office Library*.  The Patent Office was established in 1852, its creation made possible by the passing of the Patent Law Amendment Act in July of that year, long after the Board of Longitude was disbanded in 1828. The Act demanded ‘true copies of all specifications to be open to the inspection of the public at the office of the Commissioners’ and from this requirement developed the Patent Office Library which opened on 5 March 18556.

The longitude pamphlets may well have come from the private collections of Bennet Woodcroft or Richard Prosser which together formed the nucleus of the new library.  As Assistant to the Commissioners of Patents, Woodcroft was responsible for the identification, collation, printing, abstracting and indexing of early British patent specifications7 and was first Superintendent of Specifications.  Prosser was an engineer and patent reform campaigner.  Both men recognised the importance of providing a reliable reference collection of previous specifications and inventions and we know that Prosser’s collection of around seven hundred volumes included a large number of items published before 1800.  

Whatever their source, despite contemporary satire longitude pamphlets entered the Patent Office Library as reference works.  This was the result of changes in attitudes to inventing that such pamphlets slowly helped to foster. For the eighteenth century was the period in which patents were beginning to resemble their modern descendants: the same decades in which the authors of longitude pamphlets were attempting to attract backers for their inventions. These pamphlets attempted to describe their inventions in a convincing way, and often to include an engraved image to give their idea more credibility. Thus, longitude pamphlets developed along the lines of patent specifications, as the rubric of these specs was itself brought to fruition8. In fact, some of the same people who proposed longitude solutions also sought patents for their inventions, as different avenues to the same goal of financial and intellectual security. The 2000 film Longitude, based on the book by Dava Sobel, represents Christopher Irwin, inventor of the marine chair, as a bumbling fool, but he was sufficiently clued up to apply for a patent for his chair in 17589 (GB731 of 1758).

The fact, however, that it is not just patent applications, but a broader group of longitude pamphlets, that came together in the Patent Office Library, nicely tells the story of how the library developed precisely from the concerns over the status of invention that led eighteenth-century commentators to ridicule such pamphlets. The joke against Wallace over 100 years later, shows that the ridicule was harder to shake.

*The Patent Office Library (subsequently the National Reference Library for Science and Invention) was one of the institutions brought together in 1972 to create the British Library.


(1)  The traditional story of the longitude problem and the Board of Longitude can be found in William Andrewes' (ed.), The Quest for Longitude: The proceedings of the Longitude Symposium, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 4-6 1993 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996) [British Library, Document Supply q97/00766]. The papers of the Board of Longitude are now available through the Cambridge University Digital Library 

(2)  The Gentlemans Magazine and historical chronicle, vol.22 (August 1752), p.359 [British Library, General Reference Collection 249.c.22]

(3)  William Whiston,  A new method for discovering the longitude both at sea and land, humbly proposed to the consideration of the publick (London, 1714) [British Library, General Reference Collection 533.e.24.(7.)]

(4)  Jeremy Thacker, The longitudes examin'd. Beginning with a short epistle to the longitudinarians, and ending with the description of a smart, pretty machine of my own, which I am (almost) sure will do for the longitude, and procure me the twenty thousand pounds (London, 1714), p.2 [British Library, General Reference Collection 533.f.22.(1.)]

(5)  William Ward, The description and use of a new astronomical instrument, for taking altitudes of the sun and stars at sea, without an horizon; together with an easy and sure method of observing the eclipses of Jupiters satellites, or any other phoenomenon of the like kind, on ship-board; In order to determine the Difference of Meridians at Sea (London, 1735), p.4 [British Library, General Reference Collection 117.d.12.]

(6)  The history of the library is told in John Hewish, Rooms near Chancery Lane: the Patent Office under the Commissioners, 1852-1883 (London, c.2000) [British Library, Document Supply m00/37854, Science, Technology & Business (B) BF 46]

(7)  Bennet Woodcroft, Alphabetical index of patentees of inventions from March 2, 1617 to October 1, 1852 (London, 1969) [British Library, Science, Technology & Business RES (B) BF 482 Law, Document Supply Wq2/2317]

(8)  More on patents can be read in Christine Macleod, Inventing the Industrial Revolution: the English patent system, 1660-1800 (Cambridge, 1988) [British Library, Document Supply 89/02218, General Reference Collection YH.1989.b.101]

(9)  This is based on Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time (London, 1995) [British Library, Document Supply 96/06254, General Reference Collection YA.1995.a.27311]. Irwin published his invention in A summary of the principles and scope of a method, humbly proposed, for finding the longitude at sea (London, 1760) [British Library, General Reference Collection C.194.b.349].

A note on the author: Katy Barrett is a final year PhD Student on the AHRC-funded project 'The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World' jointly hosted by the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and Royal Museums Greenwich. She works on the cultural history of the longitude problem, about which you can hear more in a 'PhDCast' done with CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) at Cambridge. Katy blogs and tweets as @SpoonsonTrays.

13 September 2013

Propaganda, the geography of not-knowing and the history of ignorance

Toby Austin Locke, a member of the Social Sciences department at the British Library, writes about the dangers of forms of propaganda which promote non-action and acceptance.

We tend to think of propaganda as something fairly active; a message or instruction to act or think in a certain way, a persuasive force. The images that spring to mind when we speak of propaganda, the quasi-mythological Uncle Sam, the deified images of noble Soviet workers, or even the seductive images that flit across our television screens and line the walls of the underground stations, all appear to encourage us to act or think in a certain way, to stand by our country, to honour the workers, to use the right aftershave in order to achieve absolute sexual virility. But the current exhibition here at the British Library has made me start thinking about another form of what could be considered propaganda, a form that is potentially far more pervasive and powerful. Propaganda that rather than persuading us to think or act in a certain way,  encourages us not to think or act at all, to keep our heads down, to maintain our apathy.

Above: Soviet Women c.1920 by Unknown artist, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright statement and download here. [Public domain]

There is a famous piece of propaganda which illustrates this particularly well, one which has recently seen resurgence in the popular imagination and has transformed from an old, forgotten piece of state propaganda to a potent commercial image, practically a brand in its own right. I’m thinking of the famous Ministry of Information poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’ This image was never used for its intended purpose. It was originally designed to be distributed should Nazi forces have invaded England.

The sentiment behind this message is open to questioning. Would the British public really be encouraged to ‘keep calm and carry on’ had Hitler’s forces reached England? Would we really want to ‘keep calm and carry on’ as fascism took hold of Europe?

Above: Keep Calm and Carry On. By original poster by UK Government, enhancements, conversion to PNG by oaktree_b, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright and download here. [Public domain]

To my mind at least the answer is no. When atrocities are occurring all around you, when ethics are no longer a matter of concern, when peoples lives and existence are at stake, the last thing I would like to see happen is for everyone to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Surely if there are ever times for people to rise up and take action, it would be under such conditions.

The question I’m trying to raise here, perhaps a little clumsily, is regarding the role of non-action, of ignoring, of not knowing in certain power relations. In a short video snippet, Bruno Latour briefly mentions two possible areas of study: the geography of not knowing and the history of ignorance. He points out the work-like elements of knowing, the labour involved in knowledge, that may often make not-knowing or ignoring the easier option. Facing up to painful truths is certainly not easy, but does ignoring the ethical consequences of such truths seem like the best alternative? It comes back to J.S. Mill’s statement “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” (2010 :46) Would we rather know and act to attain ethical outcomes and perhaps be dissatisfied, or remain in ignorance and contentment?

It could be suggested that such a message is found articulated in political discourse today through the current UK Government’s mantra regarding people who want to ‘work hard and get on’ and the pan-European political insistence of the necessity of austerity. Supporters of the welfare state across the country are coming out in protest against the ‘bedroom tax’ and wider austerity measures, but the mantra of Government, particularly regarding those who want to ‘get on’, offers them no support – it is here to support those who keep their head down and keep going. Whilst there are equally arguments to be heard in favour of the Government’s approach, a supporter of welfare provision could certainly make a case for this mantra being a reincarnation of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach to propaganda, encouraging people to look the other way, and not think too hard about the wider consequences of what is going on around them. Of course, the ethical implications of such an approach are open to debate, and are certainly not about to be resolved here.

Toby Austin Locke currently works on the Social Welfare Portal at the British Library. The views represented here are his own and do not reflect those of the organisation. You can follow him on twitter @BLSocialWelfare (in a professional capacity) and his personal twitter account is @TobyaLocke.

Toby Austin Locke is currently working in the British Library social sciences team on the Social Welfare Portal and is due to start working towards his doctorate in October 2013 at Goldsmiths College, University of London. You can contact him on twitter @tobyalocke or read more of his blog-posts at - See more at:

12 September 2013

Thank Goodness for Propaganda!

The following article was prepared by Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, to open the discussion on our second of four public debates to accompany our exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. The debate was held on Tuesday 3 September. It has also been published on the website of Speakers Corner Trust, our partner for the debate programme.

Stamps produced by the Tufty Club. The Tufty Club was set up in 1961 by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to encourage better road safety amongst children Copyright Statement

What do Joseph Goebbels and Tufty the Squirrel have in common? Not much at first glance. Goebbels advanced the Nazi cause for over a decade, and Tufty taught millions of school children a ‘quasi-military kerb drill’ to safely cross the road. But in fact they embody the two poles of the propaganda spectrum – sinister and sympathetic, malignant and benign. And each, in their own way, influenced millions of people to change their attitudes and behaviour.

Propaganda is a word loaded with negative connotations – brainwashing, deception, lies, half-truths and hoodwinking – and is often associated with times of war. But strip the term of a particular context provided by time and place and propaganda – good and bad – is all around us. The Goebbels-Tufty comparison may be facetious, but the extraordinary extent of the difference serves to underline an important point: we have to think about the intent and if we think only of the sinister and not the sympathetic we fail to truly understand why and how hearts and minds are won. For stripped to its core, propaganda is no more and no less than the dissemination of ideas designed to convince the public to think and act in a certain way and for a particular purpose. And influencing beliefs and behaviours need not always be a bad thing.

llustration from the Medical Officer journal to promote better public health. At the time, flies were held responsible for contaminating food and spreading diseases such as tuberculosis.

Propaganda by those in authority can be motivated by genuine concern for the public interest such as the health and safety of citizens. For every war that has been shaped by propaganda, so too a disease has been tackled by a mass public information campaign designed to eradicate health threats posed by killers such as tuberculosis and polio. The first national public health campaign urged mothers to ‘kill the fly and save the child’ here in Britain in 1910. In the 1960s every parent knew that ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’, and by the late 1980s fewer citizens were likely to be ignorant about AIDS following the government’s 1987 tombstone campaign.

Today, across the globe governments promote the ‘5 A Day’ campaign to encourage citizens to eat five daily portions of fruit and vegetables following a recommendation by the World Health Organisation. For some this is the nanny state in action. Of course the government wants to encourage people to eat more nutritious food but they also want to change behaviour in order to conserve resources and reduce the cost to the public purse posed by health problems like diabetes and obesity. Is that a bad thing?

Propaganda is also used to create a sense of identity and belonging and not always by the state. Historically, governments have utilised images and items – the national anthem, coins, flags, stamps, buildings or monuments – to promote a sense of national identity and patriotism. But so too have anti-establishment campaigns: the wearing of suffragette colours, or anti-apartheid and CND badges was a clear statement of a person’s views and an encouragement to others to join them in common cause. These iconic images portray meaning and belonging in the same way as the Swastika or the Hammer and Sickle, or an Oak Tree or Red Rose. Some are malevolent some are not; but all, in their own way, are instruments of manipulation targeted at hearts and minds.

Patriotic symbolism need not be jingoistic or even solely targeted at domestic citizens. The London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony on the theme ‘Isles of Wonder’ was described as a ‘love letter to Britain’. The organisers may not have intended it to be propaganda, but in showcasing the cultural, economic and social achievements and prestige of Britain it was explicitly designed to influence people’s emotional response at home and abroad, bathing the country in a positive light even before the sport had begun. It was soft propaganda for ‘Brand Britain’.

One of the most effective propagandists of recent years has been Her Majesty the Queen. Following her ‘annus horribilis’ in 1992 and the death of Diana in 1997 the Royal Family embarked on a concerted effort to change public attitudes towards them. The propaganda toolbox was cracked open in a carefully choreographed effort to win back public support. The power of symbols and ceremony and a nod to modernity and accessibility through the embrace of social media were all harnessed in the effort, buttressed by the propagandists’ clever use of humour culminating in the iconic James Bond moment during the Olympic opening ceremony. As the country marked the Diamond Jubilee, royal popularity hit a fifteen year high and the Queen herself has personal ratings that politicians can only dream of. But is this twenty-year public relations effort necessarily a bad thing? Only if you’re a republican perhaps.


Liberty provided a symbol that would be understood anywhere in the United States. The theme of “freedom imperilled” deflected from discussion of the rationale for joining the war. National War Savings Committee. Paper bags with war savings messages. c.1916. Copyright Statement

Even in wartime, some forms of propaganda can be a good thing. If the country has to go to war, better to win than lose; but to do so recruits, money and supplies are needed. So it’s in the national interest for the Parliamentary Recruitment Committee to promote a ‘Your country needs YOU’ campaign, encourage the population to ‘lend a hand’ through war savings, and remind everyone that ‘careless talk costs lives’. And, particularly as an island nation facing the disruption of international transport links, it’s vital that food and energy supplies – so essential to morale – are maintained. So propaganda efforts to promote rationing and the conservation of coal supplies are all beneficial for the national cause. In World War Two, as food imports fell by a third, an additional six million acres of land was cultivated largely as a result of the Dig for Victory campaign which informed the public how to grow vegetables in their gardens and on public land. Without this public information propaganda to change citizens’ behaviour the country might have been starved to surrender.

So there are times when we can say ‘thank goodness’ for propaganda.  Ultimately it is the intention of propaganda that should determine our view of its merits. The society in which we now live, with a watchful media and powerful social media platforms, means British citizens are less likely than in years past to have the wool pulled over their eyes and the government to escape challenge. That’s not to say it can’t happen; merely that it’s more difficult than before for malevolent propaganda to prevail, at least in peacetime. And as social media democratises access to powerful channels of communication we could all be propagandists in the future.

11 September 2013

Speakers Corner at the British Library

Ian Cooke, co-curator of 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' provides a summary of public debates held at the Library in partnership with Speakers Corner Trust.

Over four days 2- 5 September, the British Library held four public debates related to the theme of our exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. We worked with Speakers Corner Trust to plan the programme of debates, and were extremely lucky to have four inspirational speakers to introduce and lead our debates. 

Dr Evan Harris, Associate Director of the Hacked Off campaign for a free and accountable press, introduced our first debate ‘Is the News Propaganda?’. On subsequent days, Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, asked us to re-examine our views about propaganda, and consider more-positive aspects. Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, led a lively discussion on our attitudes to media new and old, and how we respond to a sense of “information overload”. Finally, Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of Article19, gave a strong defence of freedom of speech as the best means of combatting the “propaganda of hate”.  

Each speaker gave a short introduction to the topic, and then the direction and theme of the debate, as well as the content, came from the audience present. This worked better on some days than others, but on every day I was struck by the richness and seriousness of the discussion that came from the audience. I learnt a lot, and the four days have made me look at these subjects in a different light. I’m very grateful to everyone who attended on these days. For the rest of this post, I’ll try to summarise some of the main points that came out in the debates. However, this is of course a personal view, and I’m sure that, for those of you who came along, you’d probably have different things to say.


Introducing the last of our debates, Peter Bradley, the Director of Speakers Corner Trust, reminded us that ‘rights are like muscles, you need to exercise them or they grow weak’. A strong theme through all four days was the importance of freedom of speech and expression, and the value in ensuring this is extended and nurtured for all. Access to the means of communication, including through new media and social media, empowers and provides the means for groups to organise and gain support. More than this though, it can also provide a means of redress, to correct distortions and challenge prejudice. As Ruth Fox demonstrated, the use of powerful symbols, for example on banners and badges, could generate feelings of solidarity.

There are, of course, challenges. People talked about the inequality of access to spaces for debate, resulting from structural issues around ownership of the national and international news organisations and social media platforms, or around access to new technologies. Online information sources can sometimes give the impression of creating a “deluge” of news. Difficulties in sorting that which we find trustworthy from the untrustworthy can lead us to the conclusion that all sources are unreliable, and promote a sense of cynicism where we feel powerless and alienated. In the case of social-media, the capacity to harass and abuse, often anonymously or under cover of a pseudonym, appears unchecked. Much of the discussion over the four days sought ways in which we could overcome such difficulties.

We discussed regulation in the case of news reporting. In other circumstances, there was support for education as a way of challenging cynicism, coping with perceived “information overload”, and understanding how to exercise our right to free expression without restricting this for others. One person noted that those who used new media more frequently became more confident in recognising authenticity in online communications. Understanding the process by which news becomes news can help us make decisions about what sources we trust. The teaching of history is one way in which a critical analysis of sources can be introduced. 

The programme was devised to accompany our exhibition on propaganda, so there was much discussion about what the word meant to people. Talking about news reporting, propaganda could be thought of as intentional, editorial, bias. Also, and perhaps more damagingly, it could be a failure to analyse things presented as fact or to critically question sources. A lack of accountability or poor systems of redress could also contribute to propaganda. Here, we were thinking about propaganda as being the narrowing of argument and heightening of inequalities in access to debate. However, the presence of bias in debate and commentary could also be a healthy sign – one that shows that freedom of expression is protected. The crucial element here would be an accompanying plurality of voices.


Ruth Fox reminded us that persuasive speech could also be used to mutually beneficial ends. Health campaigning by state bodies can result in savings for services, and more productive populations, but also result in genuine benefits in wellbeing for individuals. As with other, more readily-recognised forms of propaganda, the appeal is often made to emotions, using powerful images and symbols.    

An important issue in the way that we respond to these powerful messages is trust. This was a theme raised by many of our speakers and in subsequent discussions. At some points there seemed to be a reluctance to place trust in many of the sources of information that we receive, with both social media and more traditional media faring poorly. The point was made that we tend to place more trust in sources and people that are local. Also, that we are more likely to trust sources that we agree with – which can be a useful tool for propagandists. This leads back to the importance of education and access to debate. The more we understand about how the messages that we find influential are produced, the better-equipped we are to analyse and assess them. Access to the arenas of debate, and making use of that access, makes the sources of information more accountable and more reflective of the range of interests and opinions within a society.   

06 September 2013

Made at the British Library

The British Library has put together a new series of videos which show how different people have been inspired and supported by the Library’s collections. Different areas of the collections such as newspapers, maps and market research reports are shown to enable researchers, educators and creative individuals carry out their work. Alex Hall, a final year PhD student at the University of Manchester has used the British Library’s newspaper collections to undertake research in the history of science. Here is a bit more about his research and how he has used our collections.

History of Science – Alex Hall

Alex Hall is in the final year of his PhD at the University of Manchester, researching UK weather events and the history of the Met Office. He is interested in the way that the Met Office has communicated with the public, and how its role has changed since WWII. His starting point was the Daily Mirror headline after the Great Storm of 1987: ‘Why didn’t they warn us?’ This prompted the question: how did this culture of blame develop?

Alex has used official documents from other archives to research particular events, for example, floods in the 40s and 50s. These sources can tell you ‘what happened’, or ‘what was supposed to happen’, but they often don’t tell you how events unfolded, and how the public responded. He turned to the Library’s unique collections of local newspapers to analyse the public response to the floods. He also used the Library’s international collections to find government documents from around the world, to give a wider context to his work. Particularly useful was a US document called ‘Weather is the Nation’s Business’; he discovered that many British policy ideas had been directly drawn from this report. Alex has spoken at several conferences about his work, in the UK and US, and also writes a weather-related blog. This blog led to him being invited to speak to a group of Chinese meteorologists about his research. He hopes his completed research will prove useful to the Met Office, as his discoveries give insight into the evolution of its role and reputation.

Watch Alex’s short video about his research at the British Library here:


In the case of the video failing to play, click here.

Follow Alex on Twitter @Green_gambit and read his personal blog here:


04 September 2013

The most unpopular government department

Ian Cooke, co-curator of 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' writes about the Ministry of Information.

‘If the Ministry of Information were to become a beloved feature of our political life, then I should indeed feel that something had gone very wrong with the mental and spiritual health of my countrymen.’ Harold Nicolson M.P., Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information, writing in the BBC Handbook, 1941.

Some of the most memorable propaganda from the Second World War was generated from or with the support of the Ministry of Information. “Careless Talk costs Lives”, “Dig for Victory”, “Keep Calm and Carry On” all now have an enduring power, recognition and popularity in British culture today. It may be surprising then that these all came from a Ministry that was seen as highly unpopular and ineffective when it began on 4 September 1939.

This was in fact the second time that a Ministry of Information had been set up in Britain. During the First World War, the Department of Information was created in February 1917 from a number of bodies with responsibilities for propaganda and press in allied and neutral countries and in military zones. Maintenance of morale, recruitment and war savings campaigns within the UK remained the responsibility of a network of commercial, Parliamentary and voluntary committees. The Department became the Ministry of Information in March 1918, and was dissolved in November 1918.

Planning for a revived Ministry of Information, in the event of war in Europe, began as early as 1936, drawing on experiences and recollections of those who worked in the First World War. In our exhibition, you can see a note on the volume of material produced by the Department in 1917 – 40 million items in just 10 months. The renewed Ministry of Information held responsibility for domestic propaganda and censorship (unlike its First World War predecessor) as well as propaganda in allied and neutral countries. As well as producing publicity materials itself, the Ministry was intended to advise other government departments on publicity and co-ordinate this work. From the start, the relationship between the Ministry and other government departments was difficult, with battles over who made decisions on public information material. There was also a feeling within the Ministry that its role regulating BBC news output was ambiguous and it had not been given the necessary authority to carry it out. In practice, reporting of the war on the BBC and in the British press was more obstructed by the reluctance of the Service Ministries to release timely information. Public opinion, however, placed the blame on the Ministry of Information. All these difficulties are perhaps reflected in the rapid succession of Ministers in its first years: Lord Hugh MacMillan (September 1939- January 1940), Lord John Reith (January- May 1940), Alfred Duff Cooper (May 1940- July 1941), and Brendan Bracken (from July 1941).


Above: Ministry of Information posters by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer via Wikimedia Commons.
Public Domain Mark

For its first years, the Ministry was unpopular within government and also with the press and public in Britain. Its early attempts at producing posters were met with strong resistance. A poster with white lettering on a red background, very much in the style of “Keep Calm and Carry On”, carried the message: ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory’. Public and press picked up on the distinction between “your” and “us”, complaining that the message appeared to be too aloof or condescending – worse, that it suggested that the British public would be relied on to deliver victory for the political elite in Whitehall. This didn’t, however, stop the brewery Courage releasing their own version of the poster with the amended words, ‘… your Courage will add per 1d pint to the Exchequer’. The “Keep Calm” poster, intended for use in the event of imminent invasion, was never used – although it is doubtful that it would have achieved the level of popularity in 1939 that it has enjoyed in recent years.

Similarly, the development of the Home Intelligence Department, to observe and report on public morale through Britain, although of high importance to the planning of public information, was initially met with suspicion and derision. Those tasked with interviewing members of the public, and reporting on morale around the country, were described as ‘Cooper’s Snoopers’, after the then Minister, Duff Cooper.

The Ministry learnt from its early mistakes, and heeded the advice given from, amongst others, Mass Observation on the tone and appearance of posters and leaflets. The use of plain text and distant tone was replaced with more sophisticated tactics, using humour and images. Significant too, the appointment of Brendan Bracken as Minister brought better political support for the Ministry (Bracken was a close friend of Churchill’s) and, crucially, improved the flow of information to the British press from the War Office, Admiralty and Air Ministry.    

Following the end of the Second World War, the Ministry was closed. Responsibility for publicity to countries outside the UK passed to the Foreign Office and Colonial Office, while newly-formed Central Office of Information (COI) took over responsibility for advising government departments and commissioning publicity. Over the next 60 years, the COI were responsible for commissioning some of the most memorable British publicity campaigns, including the Green Cross Code (with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), the “Clunk Click” campaign to promote use of seatbelts in cars, “Coughs and Sneezes” and AIDS awareness publicity. From 2010, however, government spending on marketing campaigns was substantially reduced as part of wider public spending cuts, and the COI closed at the end of March 2012.