Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Helpful Hints, 1909

As a collector of American arts and crafts furniture and pottery (not the real expensive stuff, of course), I have an interest in Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters. At an antique shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I picked up a copy of Hubbard’s Helpful Hints for Business Helpers, published by the Roycrofters in 1909. In it, I found, not surprisingly, some interesting advice offered about the production of records, in this case, business letters, that still resonate today as well as reflect how workers viewed the creation of documents.

Hubbard advises workers not to write letters that “show resentment or anger,” because the “letter lives long after the cause of offense if forgotten” (p. 7). How often have we encountered the same advice in modern etiquette and e-mail manuals? In Hubbard’s day, advice is offered to separate personal and business matters, including the writing of personal letters, away from the business world (p. 8). Workers are instructed not to “touch pencils, pens, erasers or papers on another man’s desk, unless he is there” (p. 8). The issues of economy were of concern then as they still often seem to be today: “Never use letter-paper or envelopes to figure on or for memoranda – it shows you do not realize that the first requisite in business is economy” (p. 11). And, finally, Hubbard advises workers to “date all letters, memoranda and statistics – the Dating Habit is a good one” (p. 12). In this last issue, we now think of the challenges of maintaining version control of those many word-processed drafts of a report or letter.

This small publication is also filled with commentary on workers’ performance reflecting both the emergence of scientific management and the tendency of the Arts and Crafts designers to cover their homes and offices in messages about life and work. The way they did it was quite beautiful, even if we might reject many of the ideas presented. I am glad to have a small example of a Roycroft publication; it looks nice propped up on my mission desk at home, a desk dated 1905 and perfectly suitable for accommodating my laptop.