Tuesday, 5 February 2013

In Praise of Bureaucracy

Not a popular view, but restrain the Daily Mail reader that lurks within and consider: bureaucracy is not only essential in terms of ensuring accountability, it is also a vital component in making an over-evolved world actually function. And from the historian's point of view the more of it the better: annotated personal papers, records of committees and sub-committees, with motions considered in depth, votes cast and counted, and minutes dispassionately recording all; how preferable that is to the sinister farce of sofa government, with its documentary silence and in-built opportunities for confusion, and worse yet, obfuscation and evasion by the unscrupulous.

But why this futile attempt to rescue such an obviously useful concept from unthinking opprobrium? You may thank the London Missionary Society, the extensive records of which are kept at SOAS. The earnest worthies who founded the Society in the 1790s were very careful record-keepers; standing committees dealt with finance and administrative matters, but the smallest subject that came within the purview of the Directors was referred to an ad hoc committee, which discussed and deliberated before reporting their findings back to the Directors for further consideration, and, ultimately, a vote. Slow, painstaking and thorough and democratic: how quaint, and how invaluable to my client, who had retained me to look into the history of the printing of the Society's published account of its first mission to the southern Pacific that sailed aboard the Duff in 1796 (a remarkable story in itself). Astonishingly, even some of the ad hoc publication committee's rough notes have survived, and these, together with the general minutes, a few financial records and in-coming and out-going correspondence, enabled me to piece together much of the story.

This standard of record-keeping reminded me of some early nineteenth-century trade union records at the Modern Records Centre that I once looked at; and how grateful we researchers should be to those hidebound and antiquated bureaucrats - their administrative genius (and honesty) has left so much for the attentive enquirer. In contrast, pity the hapless soul who comes to research the Blair years.

1 comment:

  1. Old Printer and Papermaker am I,
    Blogging for Bureaucracy: O Despoiler of Forests, and Patron of the Inky-fingered Brigade!

    And Three cheers for Dr Lewis, who defined Lewis' Law as: 'Bureaucracy is the Lifeblood of Historicity'