Central Office of Information Archive

Propaganda cartoon from WW2 of Hitler looking at Englishman and saying "He's the obstacle in my path to world domination".
Second World War poster: 'Hitler eyes Britain from Berlin'

The Central Office of Information (COI) Archive is made up of the file copies of all the public information materials it designed for government departments from the 1940s to 1997. As well as leaflets, it includes posters, stickers, forms, maps, etc.

About the collection

The COI was the UK government's marketing and communications agency. It was established in 1946 as the successor to the wartime Ministry of Information. It worked with Whitehall departments and public bodies to produce information campaigns on issues that affected the lives of British citizens, from health and education to benefits, rights and welfare. It closed on December 31st 2011 when it fell victim to the Coalition Government’s austerity programme.

The COI Archive at the British Library is a unique collection of over 25,000 free information and guidance leaflets, posters, booklets and other promotional materials dating from the 1940s to 1997. The materials were designed and produced for a range of UK government departments and agencies by the COI, which deposited its master set of file copies with the British Library in 2000. The leaflets and other materials in the collection were intended to:

  • Inform the public about their rights and entitlements to, for example, social security benefits
  • Provide straightforward guidance to employers, their workers, professionals and the public about government initiatives, programmes and current regulations, e.g. discipline in schools; education at work
  • Influence behaviour, e.g., anti-drink driving campaign materials
  • Inform citizens about current government policies and their implementation, e.g. nationalisation; the national curriculum
  • Provide careers information, e.g. teaching as a career, careers in the armed forces
  • Inform people overseas about Britain
  • Act as propaganda, e.g. literature dropped from aircraft over occupied countries in World War II

The collection covers the whole spectrum of contemporary life, including:

  • Education, schools and the curriculum
  • Social security benefits and pensions
  • Public health issues, e.g. HIV and AIDS
  • Food safety
  • Environmental issues and nature conservation
  • Overseas trade and exports
  • Housing issues, e.g. the Right to Buy
  • Career opportunities in the public sector and armed forces

This unique collection reveals what the government wanted its citizens to think or know about topical issues at the time of publication and the image of Britain it wanted to project to the outside world. As such it is of enduring interest to social historians. Because it also reveals what regulatory guidance was being given to citizens at a certain date, it could also be used for the resolution of disputes about benefits entitlements.

What is available online?

As well as printed informational materials, the COI also produced a wealth of public information films. Many of these have found their way onto YouTube. You can find them by searching for “Central Office of Information videos” on Google.

The UK Government Web Archive has captured snapshots of the COI’s website from 2004 to 2013 as well as some audio and public information film content:

The National Archives website also features a selection of some of the most memorable and influential COI public information films covering fascinating events from British post-war history put together to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2006.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The COI Archive itself can be consulted only in the Social Sciences Reading Room at St Pancras.  There are individual records for all the materials in it in Explore the British Library and you can use these to order the items. Please consult our Help Guide for advice on searching the Archive records as a subset of the catalogue.

As well as the COI Archive, the Library holds significant collections of leaflets and pamphlets issued during World War II by its predecessor, the Ministry of Information at shelfmark BS.51/8 There is an index in the social sciences reading room at OPL.940.53016. There is a parallel collection of wartime posters at in 16 boxes BS.51/29, but no index, so you will have to order a boxful and rummage.

What is available in other organisations?

The National Archives holds general records of the Central Office of Information and its predecessor government information departments and ministries from 1917 to 2013. Browse the National Archives Discovery catalogue under government department reference INF for a full description.

When the COI closed its archive of 20,000 public information films was deposited at the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive. Often quirky and eccentric, these films were used over 66 years to influence life and behaviour in Britain. The film archive complements the print archive.