Newsletter issues
Combined index

QUALIDATA Resource Centre

by Louise Corti

The need for a qualitative data archive policy

One of the most notable advances brought by the establishment of the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) was the creation of a national ESRC Data Archive for machine-readable quantitative survey data. By insisting on adequate arrangements for the deposit of material arising from research it funds, ESRC has ensured that the progress of quantitative social research is cumulative. Crucial data can be re-analysed in the light of unexpected social changes and the new questions which each succe eding debate brings. Money spent on research becomes not only immediate outlay, but also investment for the future. The ESRC Data Archive currently has a staff of twenty-eight to provide this crucial function.

Until October of 1994, ESRC had no explicit policy for depositing research material generated from the qualitative studies which it funds. As a result, over the last 25 years huge resources have been devoted to qualitative interview, ethnographic, case and anthropological studies but the data has often been destroyed, is untraceable or inaccessible.

Professor Paul Thompson and other members of the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, seeing the need for a policy for archiving qualitative materials, carried out a pilot survey in 1991 which sought the views of academics who had undertaken qualitative research funded by the ESRC. The response was over-whelmingly positive; many of the social scientists responding agreed with the need to preserve such research material and welcomed the proposal for an ESRC initiative in this area.

Establishment of QUALIDATA

On the basis of these findings from the pilot study, the ESRC awarded Professor Thompson almost three quarters of a million pounds over 5 years to start up a Resource Centre to facilitate and document the archiving of qualitative material whilst also drawing the research communities' attention to it's existence and potential. The Centre, QUALIDATA, is located within the Department of Sociology at Essex. Together with the Director, Professor Paul Thompson, at present the Centre has four members of staff. The Centre's Advisory Committee is made up of experts in fields of relevance to the project, with the intention of representing the perspectives of the relevant disciplines and of the academic, government and policy, national library and archival, and media communities. Academic disciplines represented are sociology, social policy, anthropology, social and economic history, political science, social and human geography and social psychology and business studies.

QUALIDATA's first year

The main activities for the Centre in the first year have been:

1. Investigating potential repositories for depositing data such as interview transcripts and tape recording of interviews, diaries and field notes from selected projects. There are already some well-established archives at various locations around Britain specialising in related material. Amongst others, the Centre will use the National Sound Archive at the British Library, the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, the British Library of Political and Economic Science at LSE, the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh. Negotiations have focused on acquisitions policies, methods of cataloguing and facilities for storing and providing access to the holdings. A survey of all University libraries and Research Centres in Britain has been conducted to establish which already hold or would be prepared to hold qualitative materials.

2. Constructing a priority list of qualitative data projects considered to have high archival potential and whose investigators are agreeable to deposit. Criteria include the uniqueness and physical state of the research material as well as the anticipated degree of future usage. QUALIDATA has conducted two postal surveys of potential depositors; a follow-up of the original 1991 pilot survey of ESRC grant holders (sociologists and anthropologists); and a postal questionnaire sent to all holders of ESRC grants since 1970 who were thought to have used qualitative methods in their research. Furthermore, the Centre has had meetings with other major funders of social research to consider strategies for archiving qualitative data arising from studies they fund. Ultimately, the Centre aims to implement a continuing strategy by which researchers will be encouraged to make their qualitative research material available to others.

3. Developing agreements with repositories and principal investigators for the deposit of material. These have focused largely on issues of confidentiality of the personal data and the implications for conditions of access as well as means of monitoring the research use of the material. QUALIDATA has drafted a set of guiding "Notes for Depositors" and a number of forms and legal documents regarding the processing of materials and conditions of deposit.

Year 2 and beyond

Although the first year was primarily a time for setting up the Centre and developing procedures for accessions, referral, depositing and cataloguing qualitative research materials, the Centre has processed a small number of datasets. In mid-1996, information about qualitative data sources will be available in printed and machine-readable form and accessible and searchable through JANET (the United Kingdom's joint academic network) and INTERNET. QUALIDATA will also have its own HOMEPAGE on the World Wide Web. Since the ESRC Data Archive are also based here at Essex, QUALIDATA are working together with them to ensure that some qualitative materials are available as machine-readable documents, the descriptions of which are accessible through their own on-line bibliographic retrieval system (BIRON).

Resources for Research and Teaching

The Centre is committed to organising and hosting twice-yearly workshops to promote issues relevant to archiving and to facilitate secondary analysis of archived material, and to provide ESRC and other social science researchers with a forum for advice and exchange of experience on issues relating to qualitative research. The first of these workshops entitled "Archiving Qualitative Data: Questions for Researchers" was held in September 1995 at the National Sound Archive in London. The speakers invited had extensive experience in qualitative methods and archiving. Because the intention of this workshop was to stimulate a trickle down of information, participation was deliberately restricted to Directors, key researchers or lecturers with extensive experience in either doing or teaching qualitative research.

QUALIDATA will be linking in with other workshops hosted by the Department of Sociology at Essex and other departments and centres. On May 1995, QUALIDATA contributed to a workshop at Essex on "Life-story Interviewing and Trauma" and will be participating in a second workshop at Essex in 1996 entitled "In the Money: Interviewing Financial Elites". It is hoped that these workshops will attract postgraduate students and that the ideas will feed into both undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

QUALIDATA is also looking into exploiting archived material to produce educational resources, such as those based on CD-ROM technology. In conjunction with the National Life Story Collection at the National Sound Archive, QUALIDATA hopes to contribute to making oral history and other research material available in multi-media form. The Centre believes that the use of new technologies will encourage research using primary sources at the primary, secondary and tertiary educational levels.


Through it's activities it is envisaged that the Centre will provide a general stimulus to the standards of qualitative research and machine-readable storage of qualitative data in Britain as well as encouraging a more active interface between qualitative and quantitative research.

If you are:

  • interested in depositing your qualitative materials,
  • interested in a repository who would be keen to hold and make available qualitative data,
  • are interested in obtaining qualitative data for future research or teaching,
  • or would like further information about QUALIDATA,

please contact:

Louise Corti, QUALIDATA, Departement of Sociology,
University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, Essex, CO4 3SQ

Phone: +44-1206-873058
Fax: +44-1206-873410
E-mail: or

EURODATA Newsletter No.2, p.14-15