Records Books for Records Managers: Soll’s “The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System”

By Mimi Dionne posted 07-12-2012 03:26


At 22, I embarked on my journey to write the first of many bad but earnest pieces of nonfiction: my undergraduate thesis.  It described the voyage of the first shipment of women to (what is today) Mobile, Alabama. Almost no published source material was available at the time. Looking back, I feel sorry for my professors and myself. They were forced to read 125 pages of tripe produced by an inexperienced scholar who slogged to describe an interesting, historic journey in a new way.

To infuse the research with some legitimacy, I translated documents written in old and modern French.  As I translated, I unraveled a marvel of French colonial bureaucracy. I wondered at the time, “How were these documents produced? How fast did they travel back to Versailles? How could these men keep their masters informed and yet Louisiana failed?” They were extraordinary source material. I learned noms de guerre of men long gone; inventories of their personal items; the relationships with the native populations; who was eager to wife and who was not; priests’ alarm at the social unraveling of the colony; descriptions of the flora, fauna, geography and the weather…for a year in Natchitoches, Louisiana, I saw the world through a thin layer of film called Nouvelle-France.

Thanks to a tweet from Kate Theimer, I recently found Jacob Soll’s outstanding book, “The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System”. To an Information Manager, reading this book is what I imagine swimming in warm chocolate fudge must feel like. There’s personal and professional satisfaction in it: at last, long-overdue answers to my (not-so-very) scholarly questions and some professional precedence. Unbeknownst to me until a month ago, Jean-Baptiste Colbert was responsible for outlining how the documentation I translated was formatted and collected.

To sum up: Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83), the original creator of the motto, “and remember kids, knowledge is power”, was Louis XIV’s (of Sun King fame) most trusted advisor.  Indeed, he pretty much ran France and this book outlines his recipe for success. Mr. Soll has done a magnificent job. He hits several of my sweet spots:

• Archives and the rise of the modern state (bliss)
• Humanists and the renaissance of modern paperwork (hint: you prepare executive summaries today just like they did back in 17th-century France)
• Great archivists in early modern French history (think Niccolò Rising)
• Mapping power through the use of Intendents (hello, Records Coordinators!)

…and many, many more. This 360-view of Colbert emphasizes what every generation has always felt, and I guess will continue to feel in its own unique way until the roaches take it all back: information overload is nothing new or remarkable.

I regret each time I put this book down. It’s a unique treasure.  Splurge: buy it. Do it today. Do it right now. Buy it. I hope it becomes required reading in every RIM-related Masters program both domestically and internationally. I hope we pass it along to each other, losing our copies and purchasing more. Thank you, Mr. Soll, for your research and your narrative. If I could time travel, I would give it to myself 15 years ago. I know I would have loved it. I’m positive you will too.

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