Here was how archives, and state secrecy, worked in the seventeenth century: “In the fourth Treasurie, being in the Cloyster of the said Abbey of Westminster, locked with five Lockes and Keyes, beeing within two strong double Doores, are kept these Records with others…Item, a bag of Cordover, sealed with a seale of Privy Councellers, and it is not to be opened, but by the Prince and those of the privie Councell, wherein are secret matters.”
The “bag of Cordover,” or Cordovan leather, to be opened only by the King or his closest counselors, was just one of many items listed by English record-keeper Arthur Agard in his 1631 Repertorie of Records. The book described state records and archives that lay scattered across several royal sites, including Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. Agard outlined the information technology of his day: a Spanish leather bag, closed up with a wax seal embossed with the mark of the monarch’s closest counselors, placed behind a double set of quintuple-locked doors.
This is what corresponded, as closely as anything can across four centuries, to the email accounts, the cloud storage, the massive server farms of our day, protected with various combinations of PINs, alphanumeric passwords, security questions, biometric data, and computer chips embedded in key fobs and debit cards. Though accessed now through screens and keyboards, these systems, with their files, folders, documents, and threaded chains of correspondence, owe something of their basic forms and structures to methods of paper record-keeping developed in Agard’s day.
Not only have we inherited certain technological forms, certain ways of keeping archives: We have inherited, too, the political conundrums that government archives present. Even as many of us now assume that government records are rightly the property of the public—and should be accessible to journalists, historians, and individual citizens—we live in a world shaped by an earlier historical reality in which government officials’ primary loyalties were to their sovereigns and to themselves. Though many of them acted according to their view of the “public good,” they never would have accepted that “the public” had a right to scrutinize their actions, or their documents.
The record-keeping system that Arthur Agard described was meant to be comprehensive. The State Paper Office, an archive for the papers of royal councilors, had been founded in 1575, under Queen Elizabeth I. By statute, all the queen’s ministers were required to deposit their official papers with the archive. Government was understood to be founded on a historically continuous stream of information: In order to properly advise the monarch, present-day ministers needed to be able to ride the wave back through history, tracing decisions that had been made; precedents that had been set. This couldn’t be done efficiently or accurately unless papers were deposited in centrally accessible offices.