History, weak

It’s history week at the Cabinet Office, a series of internal events designed to remind the current generation of policy makers both that there is always something to learn from history and that their work will become history in its turn. It being Cabinet Office, there are ways of emphasising history not open to every organisation: we sat in the room from which Churchill went out onto the balcony to announce victory in Europe to the crowds below.

But it was a couple of tables at the back of the room which prompted this post. Casually strewn across them (but not so casually that white cotton gloves were not strewn around as well) was an eclectic set of historic documents. One group were records from 1984, on their way to the National Archive to be released next year under the thirty year rule. They were in files which were visually indistinguishable from those produced decades later and which would continue to be produced for a decade or so longer

And I was reminded of a post I wrote three years ago about the end of the file as a unit of work organisation and the implications for our ability to know what we know. I think it still bears reading.

If progressing the work continues to diverge from creating records of what has been done, the raw material of history may be thinner in future than it has been for centuries (and history here means medium term institutional memory as much as it does the work of historians). That problem will not be solved by exhortations to do better filing: it will be solved, if at all, by tools which support what people are trying to do in the short term while quietly adding what may be needed for the longer term – which is easier said than done.

Three years on, I have seen nothing which makes me think that problem is going to go away, though I would be delighted to be told that I am wrong. Historians and policy makers will both need new skills and new tools to operate effectively in that world, with landscapes much less clearly mapped than they once were.

That’s not really the end of history, of course. As I said back then,

History will, of course, look after itself. It always has. But the future history of our time will be different from our histories of past times, and that will not be because we have an eye to the future, but because we are always relentlessly focused on the present.

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