White-Collar Labour

Note from Sophia Nahamkin of the union catalog project, March 1940 (shortly before Binkley’s death)

I attended a lecture on the Enigma machine this week, and it helped consolidate an insight into Robert C. Binkley’s work in the 1930s. In the last few years he has been noticed as a harbinger of aspects of the web, but I have always been a little disappointed that I wasn’t finding more evidence of his engagement with technological developments like Hollerith card-sorting machines and such. There is his unpublished 1920s satirical short story “Barnwoggler’s Invention” about library automation, and during the Depression he exchanged a couple of letters with Vannevar Bush, but that’s about it.

The reason, I think, lay in his commitment to New Deal work-relief programs, especially the WPA. Binkley sponsored and managed several of these projects in Cleveland and participated in the planning and management of the national white-collar programs. The primary purpose of these programs was to provide as many hours of paid work to as many of the unemployed on relief as possible; doing the job efficiently was secondary. Defending his union catalogue project, which used battalions of typists to copy catalogue cards that could have been reproduced photographically, Binkley wrote: “As to the technique that is to be employed, it is to my mind exactly comparable with the use of pick and shovel men instead of steam shovels in road making [in WPA projects]. It has nothing to recommend it except the fact that the main purpose of the federal government now is to give people work rather than relief”.1 His commitment to the WPA was justified by the unique opportunity: “there is more money in WPA this year than there will be in the Foundations for the next twenty”.2 As long as Binkley’s crowd-sourcing projects were tied to the WPA, his attention would not be drawn to automation.

Instead, his efforts went into demonstrating that scholarly contributions could be made by a “factory system” employing white-collar labour with little scholarly training but with knowledge of records management. He wrote:

Who are the white-collar workers? They are the people who work with paper rather than with machinery, who deal with the public rather than with raw materials. They are the clerks. The word clerk must be understood in its historic sense. The clerks or clerics or clergy of Medieval Europe were the men and women who worked not with tools, but with records and with people. So also the clerks of today. Modern industry recruits them in vast numbers to work with records and people. Instead of copying manuscripts in monasteries, they copy invoices in offices; instead of hearing confessions they contact the public and sell refrigerators. They are nonetheless the lineal descendants of those clerks whom Alcuin trained for Charlemagne in the schools of Aix. …

Work with records is the heart of the white-collar program because the most important common denominator of clerical skill is not the ability to teach and lead, but the ability to work with records: to make records and to interpret them, to put information on them and to get information from them. This means such things as copying and consolidating figures, adding and subtracting, filing and indexing, and in general making it possible to answer questions. The virtue of clerical work is accuracy, not genius. Its rhythm is routine. It is not intrinsically “interesting” work, and those who perform it are not even expected to know all the steps below them out of which their task arises, or the steps above them by which their work is utilized. The ones who know the whole machine are the executives; the clerks are the cogs in the machine.3

So the white-collar workers are at once the descendants of the Carolingian renaissance, and machine parts. Binkley’s interest in automation of information processes was stuck at the turn of the century, when offices adopted typewriters and filing cabinets and libraries adopted card catalogues. It was stuck there because of his place in the New Deal, but also because of the potential he saw, as a teacher, in non-scholars to contribute to scholarship. This led into his advocacy for amateur scholarship, and in this area Binkley’s ambitions for WPA labour were worthy of Google. Early in his WPA career he told a conference of WPA administrators:

There is a field which commercial book publishing has not entered and cannot enter; it is the field of the edition size of 200-300 copies. There is a field which professional writing and professional scholarship has not entered and cannot enter; it is the field in which the bulk of material to be analyzed, to be broken up, to be distributed, is so great that the human lifetime is too short to handle it. In one respect these fields are the same; they lie in the exploration of local records.

Into these fields we can guide our workers, we can plan tasks for them, confident that whenever we find things of value that they can do we shall find things of value that amateur scholars can continue doing long after W.P.A. has passed out of existence.4

How does this connect with the Enigma machine? The automated decoding work at Bletchley Park was supported by thousands of clerical workers, who typed and circulated encrypted dispatches, managed massive index card files of German military units, etc. Remember the scene in The Imitation Game where Turing writes directly to Churchill to get funding for the computer he’s building? In fact, Turing (and the three other cryptographers who signed the letter) emphasized two principal requests for new resources: “about twenty more untrained Grade III women clerks” and “about twenty trained typists”.5

There are obvious questions about the labour practices of Binkley’s WPA projects, similar to those we have now about large-scale dependence on crowd-sourcing by memory institutions, which I’m trying to explore in the papers I photographed at the Library of Congress last May. What I want to get at is the experience of the WPA workers: did they see themselves as cogs in the machine or amateur scholars? Did they derive intellectual satisfaction from the work which was not intrinsically interesting? To what extent did Binkley ever resolve this contradiction?


  1. Doc. 12144: RCB to W.W. Bishop, 1935-11-07. JCMR Papers, Box 25.

  2. Doc. 12393: RCB to M. Llewellyn Raney, 1936-04-26; JCMR Papers, Box 23.

  3. Robert C. Binkley, “The Cultural Program of the W.P.A.”, Harvard Educational Review 9 (1939): 156–174, reprinted in Selected Papers of Robert C. Binkley, ed. Max H. Fisch (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948), pp. 236-257.

  4. “Notes on Future Planning Problems of Federal Project No. One (Federal Writers’ Projects and Historical Records Survey)”. Address by Robert C. Binkley at Regional Conference, Salt Lake City, July 10, 1936. JCMR Papers, Box 27.

  5. Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander, and Stuart Milner-Barry. “Letter to Winston Churchill (1941).” In The Essential Turing, 336–40. Oxford University Press, 2004.