I recently read The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert‘s Secret State Intelligence System by Jacob Soll. It is a very readable but scholarly book that tells the story of how Colbert used the accumulation of knowledge to build a highly efficient administrative system and to promote his own political career. He seems to have been the first person to seize upon the notion of “evidence-based” politics and that knowledge, information and data collection, and scholarship could be used to serve the interests of statecraft. In this way he is an ancestor of much of the thinking that is commonplace not only in today’s political administrations but also in all organizations that value the collection and management of information. The principle sits at the heart of what we mean by the “knowledge economy”.

The grim librarian

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83) is depicted as ruthless, determined, fierce, and serious. He was an ambitious man and saw his ability to control and organize information as a way of gaining and then keeping political influence. By first persuading the King that an informed leadership was a strong and efficient leadership, and then by being the person who best understood and knew how to use the libraries and resources he collected, Colbert rose to political prominence. However, his work eventually fell victim to the political machinations of his rivals and after his death his collection was scattered.

Using knowledge to serve the state

Before Colbert, the scholarly academic tradition in France had existed independently from the monarchy, but Colbert brought the world of scholarship into the service of the state, believing that all knowledge – even from the most unlikely of sources – had potential value. This is very much in line with modern thinking about Big Data and how that can be used in the service of corporations. Even the most unlikely of sources might contain useful insights into customer preferences or previously unseen supply chain inefficiencies, for example.

Colbert’s career was caught up with the political machinations of the time. He worked as a kind of accountant of Cardinal Mazarin, but when Mazarin’s library was ransacked by political rivals and his librarian fell out of favour, Colbert restored the library and built a unified information system based on the combination of scholarship and administrative documentation, ending the former division between academia and government bureaucracy.

Importance of metadata

Colbert also instinctively grasped the importance of good metadata, cataloguing, and an accurate network of links and cross references in order to be able to obtain relevant and comprehensive information quickly, issues that remain even more urgent than ever given the information explosions modern organizations – and indeed nations – face. This enabled him to become a better administrator than his rivals and by becoming not only the source of political expedient information but also the person who knew how to use the information resources most effectively, he was able to gain political influence and become a key minister under Louis XIV.

A personal vision

I was struck by how much his vast library, archive, and document management system was the result of his own personal vision, how it was built on the dismantling and rebuilding of work of predecessors, but also how, after his death, the system itself fell victim to political changes and was left to collapse. This pattern is repeated frequently in modern information projects. So often the work of the champion of the original system is wasted as infighting that is often not directly connected to the information project itself leads to budget cuts, staff changes, or other problems that lead to the system decaying.

Soll argues that the loss of Colbert’s system hampered political administration in France for generations. Ironically, it was Colbert’s own archives that enabled successive generations of political rivals to find the documents with which to undermine the power of the crown, showing the double-edged nature of information work. It is often the same collections that can both redeem and condemn.

Secrecy or transparency?

Another theme that ran throughout Colbert’s career, with both political and practical implications, was the tension between demands for transparent government and the desire for a secret state. Much of the distinction between public and private archives was simply a matter of who was in control of them and who had set them up, so the situation in France under the monarchy was different to the situation in England where Parliament and the Monarchy maintained entirely separate information systems. In France, an insistence on keeping government financial records secret eventually undermined trust in the economy. Throughout his career Colbert was involved in debates over which and how much government information should be made public, with different factions arguing over the issue – arguments that are especially resonant today.