Empty Shelves and Institutional Decay at the FCO

September 10, 2011

A few weeks ago I was rather sarcastic about the fact that I’d bought a copy of Robert Marett’s Through the Back Door that had belonged to the Foreign Office Library.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who is dubious about the  FCO selling off its books

On Thursday William Hague gave a speech ‘The Best Diplomatic Service in the World: Strengthening the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as an Institution’ to staff at the FCO which contained this passage

Finally, as a politician and part time historian I was surprised and indeed shocked upon my arrival here by the sight of the vast expanse of empty wooden shelves where once the 60,000 books, pamphlets, reports and manuscripts of the historic Foreign Office Library were housed, here in this building.

The Library embodied 500 years of British and world history; of our experiences of exploration, diplomacy, war, peacekeeping and the forging of Treaties; of our role in the abolition of the slave trade and the creation of the Commonwealth. It contained unique historical documents such as the 1692 Charter of Massachusetts, many of them annotated by the officials of the time.

Once regarded, in the words of Gladstone’s Foreign Secretary Lord Granville as “the pivot on which the whole machinery of the Foreign Office turned”, it was broken up in 2008 and the collections dispersed, mainly to Kings College London, to whom we should be grateful. This revealed insufficient understanding of the sense of history, continuity, identity and tradition that strong democratic institutions need.

It is ironic that the only object to survive the gutting of the library is a one hundred year old twenty-foot stuffed anaconda known as Albert, who remains suspended over the empty bookshelves, while the books from the period when such an unusual foreign gift found its way into the Foreign Office have been dismantled around it, and can never be reassembled. To my mind the fate of the FCO library is emblematic of a gradual hollowing out of the qualities that made the FCO one of our great institutions.

I recently read Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally (discussed by David Brooks in this New York Times column) where he makes the point that contemporary political thought and practice tends to reflexively favour individuals over institutions and reflects on the damage that this causes . As the title suggests Hague’s speech is very much in this vein and marks a very different perspective from the emphasis on ‘modernization’ characteristic of the last government.   However, I suspect that this is very much Hague speaking from his own perspective rather than marking a change in the overarching philosophy of British  public administration.

Heclo, H. (2008) On Thinking Institutionally. Boulder  Colo.: Paradigm.



  1. Fascinating, Robin! After reading your post, I found Secretary Hague had posted on Twitter (via yfrog) a photo of Albert and the empty FCO library shelves. Your readers might be interested in seeing the photo at http://yfrog.com/kj14231804j

  2. At the same time, the French Foreign Minister has made available to the public the Minister’s library:


    430 000 titles gathered along the Library’s 4 centuries of existence. Freely available in new facilities at La Courneuve. Reasons to celebrate are few and far between in the French archival/historical research world, but this is definitely one of them.

    This is interesting from an international relations’ and public diplomacy angle as well: it gives one a look into some of the material the guys in the Quai d’Orsay had at their disposal as sources of information. Of course one should be careful here, but let’s take an example: France and Finland in the 1910-1939 timeframe. A peripheral, small subject. Several key junctures, when the French diplomats had to decide on what they should do in Finland (winter 1917-1918, 1927, 1937-38, 1939-1940). Let’s see what they had in their Library. And, look! Out of the “Finlande”-marked entries in this timeframe, most were either written by Finns, or the product of interactions between French authors and Finnish money/influence/information.

    Then, like always in diplomatic history, you have to ponder the effect of that. But can you discard it completely, as irrelevant (the French knew where it came from, there were greater structures, etc)? In a case such as Finland, when the French had little interest and little information on this country, can we discard completely the influence, at key junctures, of the notions developed in these publications?

    Sorry for the long comment.


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