From 'pencil-pushing' to 'bean-counting,' and from 'cutting red tape' to 'fighting city hall,' English is rich in metaphor and euphemism for the agonies of paperwork. Historians often encounter the past through archives generated by scribes, secretaries, accountants, clerks and warehouse-managers; sometimes, archival research can feel like historical reenactment of the tedium of paperwork. And yet, the material and social history of the production and day-to-day use of archives is obscure. Moreover, historians often ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of the material traces of the past are lost forever: most information is never archived, and what is preserved begins immediately to erode. Near-instant access to a staggering variety and quantity of digitized sources conceals a vastly greater amount of lost information; the rhetoric of open access associated with digitization conceals networks of money and many thousands of hours of labor.
This workshop offers a forum for historians working in a wide range of fields to share arguments, findings and methods related to the history of bureaucratic work. How have routine practices of office work – data entry, measurement, accountancy, inventory – shaped the archives upon which historians rely? How did bureaucrats conceal or promote information? How should historians frame efforts at reform, audit, investigation and transparency undertaken in the past?