When I'm talking about recordkeeping, I don't mean cave paintings, or anything like that. Instead, I'm referencing writing down how something was repaired onto the object so people know what changes to expect, or how to undo a restoration (e.g on a painting). Or:

  • keeping track of births/deaths/marriages (I know the Romans implemented some aspects of this, but it wasn't prevalent as a system over most of the world until recently), or companies.
  • writing biographies (apparently first written formally in 1791) and encyclopedias
  • describing disasters, tragedies, etc.
  • map-making (which was practised in Babylonia and Ancient Greece, but not on a formalised, large-scale/non-experimental level until about 17th-18th century in most places)
  • recording political decisions

Although obviously not all of these have the same history or weight, most of them only became commonplace to record towards the 1800s AD. I can't think of any reason for this, beyond thinking it unnecessary, which we know very well now that they are very important for society. For instance, taking the last point on votes and political decisions, which despite the well-documented democracy and constitution of the Ekklesia in Athens, weren't recorded or written about until the advent of so-called 'modern' constitution, but to us are second nature: we can't even go into a company meeting without minutes; notes; some record of happenings. And rightfully so: when the current generations of politicians are gone, who will know what the laws are? When the restorer of a painting dies, how should we know what has been done to it?

Is there any key period/set of events to pin this shift down to, and more importantly, what inspired this change in mindset? Humans have been capable of making these records for millennia, but why hasn't bureaucratic chronicling of events been commonplace for a similar period?

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    My naive understanding is that we have been doing this, going back thousands of years, but the records have been lost to a combination of war, natural disaster, and sheer age. Paper, wax, even stone... they don't last forever. (I'm not making this an answer as I have no sources to point to and no time to fetch any.)
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 15:33
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    What evidence do you have that people didn't keep records? I suspect that many of those events were recorded, but the records were lost.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 15:35
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    Egypt in particular was incredibly top down bureaucratic, on a scale probably not seen again until modern China.
    – eps
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 23:49
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    Domesday Book: Am I a joke for you?
    – Kepotx
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 11:35
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    This is an absolutely false premise. In fact most of History and a substantial part of Archeology is a continuous stream of counter-examples to it. Even more, We actually distinguish history from pre-history, by at what point we start having written records. Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 14:16

8 Answers 8



There is no easy, short answer here, but here are some key points:

  1. Even in ancient times, humans did keep extensive records in some regions/cultures; in fact, there is evidence to suggest that record keeping pre-dates the development of writing.
  2. The extent to which records have been kept has depended on a host of factors, among them the development of states, religion (which has both helped and hindered the keeping of records), literacy / education / knowledge / technology, political stability, economic prosperity, etc.
  3. As noted in other answers, many records have simply not survived, but this has not always been due to a lack of effort or perception that something should be preserved for posterity. We have lost many potentially invaluable records while some more 'mundane' ones have survived.
  4. Records have been lost for several reasons, among them: neglect (i.e. little or no effort to preserve), accident, collateral damage during invasions, deterioration of materials over time. J. Raven (ed), Lost Libraries, makes for sober reading.
  5. You mention "writing down how something was repaired". There were such texts but, mostly, such knowledge was passed on down from father/mother to son/daughter, from master to apprentice. We tend to create and preserve what we need before anything else, but some things simply weren't needed - the master was the record of 'how to do'.
  6. Identifying one particular time when there was a 'change in mindset' is, in practice, impossible. Records have been diligently compiled and preserved at many points in time in different regions of the world. The difference between modern times and pre-modern times is that record-keeping is now much more widespread, in large part because of the increased number of highly developed states (primarily for the reasons stated above and elaborated on below).


Record keeping is as old as or older than writing itself; the earliest evidence we have of writing suggests that it was used to keep records. Some ancient writers (e.g. Herodotus, Polybius, Xenophon, Sun Tzu) clearly intended to educate and instruct both their own and future generations, and the copying of their works through the ages shows that some people at least saw value in preserving them.

Also, where you have bureaucrats you have records, and bureaucrats have been around for a very long time (see, for example, China). Much of what they recorded was fairly mundane so our 'mania' for keeping detailed records is certainly nothing new, though many of these 'mundane' records have survived more by chance or accident than by design.

The keeping of records is very much tied up with the development of the state (and its accompanying bureaucracy), which in turn both necessitates and facilitates the keeping of records. The states of today generally have far greater resources and needs for keeping and maintaining records than they did a couple of centuries ago. This is one possible point which "inspired this change in mindset", but keep in mind that there have probably always been people who sought to preserve for future generations (if only through family inheritance at first), and there will always be people who see no value in preserving something (or who set out to purposefully destroy, e.g. the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan).

Although there is evidence of many 'mundane' records being stored, how long the creators intended them to be kept is hard to say. The most likely answer is 'for as long as they thought them useful'. Perceptions of usefulness, and thus the desire to record, catalog and preserve, can change very quickly. For example, as recently as the 1950s, many saw little point in preserving for future generations old films or TV shows; although they were sometimes stored, it was usually in a haphazard manner with little regard for preservation. Hence the destruction during WWI of most of the films of Georges Méliès (a collection which would now be priceless) and the loss of early BBC TV shows from the mid 1950s such as some of the classic Hancock's Half Hour - the tapes were simply wiped so they could used again. Thus, there are clear examples of both meticulous record-keeping and of non-preservation from both ancient and modern times.

A key depository of records is the archive, the existence and maintenance of which is greatly facilitated by the existence of a stable, prosperous state. Archives date back to early ancient history, and they existed in ancient Greece and Rome. However,

These archives were all destroyed during the Great Invasions of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries A.D...

Source: Michel Duchein, 'The History of European Archives and the Development of the Archival Profession in Europe'. In 'The American Archivist Vol. 55, No. 1' (1992)

Later, though,

European archives began to revive only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when a new political and religious organization of the continent gradually emerged from the chaos....All the new monarchies (German, French, English, and later Spanish), the great feudal powers, the Church, and the towns organized their own records-keeping independently so that little by little local or national traditions and methods were created, giving birth in modern times to the various archival systems which now exist.

Source: Duchein

The above, of course, only applies to Europe; the extent of record keeping has varied greatly throughout history in different regions.

Knowledge and technology are also key factors. Knowledge may bring realisation of the importance of preserving something, while technology helps us to achieve the exploitation and preservation of a record.

Below are a few examples of record keeping or instruction materials for posterity from Europe and Asia for you to explore further:

Other sources:

J. Raven, 'Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Great Book Collections Since Antiquity' (2004)

Recordkeeping and History

Rochelle Forrester, 'History of Writing and Record Keeping' (2016, revised 2019)

  • 6
    Don't forget the Doomsday book.
    – justCal
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 23:43
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    And a whole lot of other stuff... Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 0:04
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    Xenophon wrote a number of other works, too, including autobiographic history ("Anabasis", or "What I Did On My Holidays"), history (""Hellenica", on the end & aftermath of the Peloponnesian War), a biography of King Agesilaus II of Sparta, books about politics & economics, and more. Then there's Kikkuli of Mitanni, who wrote a book on horse training back around 1350 BCE.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 4:22
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    +1: “Record-keeping is as old as writing, ... in fact writing was probably invented for record-keeping”. Exactly. Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 14:12
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    My favorite record-keeping example from Roman times is the engineering investigation by Frontinus of the water supply of Rome, in which he tries to reconcile existing records with reality, and finds various instances of unauthorized diversion in the process.
    – njuffa
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 8:21

I feel like I need to point out why many mundane records will have been lost.

Imagine you're a scribe making copies of old documents. Which do you decide to copy? Harvest records from 50 years ago, or your religion's sacred text? An invoice from 10 years ago, or the biography of your king?

My point is that there is a selection bias going on here. The texts most likely to be copied and preserved are the exciting ones, not boring day-to-day documents. We still have some administrative documents just by sheer chance; a huge number were made so, even with low individual survival rates, some lucky examples have survived to today. But there was essentially no societal effort spent on ensuring that, whereas society went to great lengths to preserve the Bible for example.

  • 34
    +1. In addition, AFAIK archives are full of medieval and modern records that nobody analyzes because there is only so much an archivist or historian can do, and there are not all that many people of those professions. So not only is there a selection/survivorship bias in what was archived, but also in what is analyzed, and therefore in what we know about, unless we are among the extremely few specialists on early 13th century beer prices near the abbey of XY. Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 9:48
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    Your answer touches on but doesn't really nail the problem of data retention. Reliable data retention requires off-site copies to prevent single points of failure, and that's as true for paper as it is for hard drives. Data retention is therefore not a single action, nor even a decision not to throw stuff away - instead it's an ongoing process to keep making, distributing and cross-checking those copies. That's where your answer starts from, of course, because this process needs people to do it.
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 14:14
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    This answer is correct, but even considering selection bias, at some point we did shift from record things that are important to record everything, on the assumption that at some point later on I or someone else may find it important.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 19:51
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    @tbrookside I certanily don't keep my work notes around for someone to later find. On the contrary, I make sure to destroy some of them. I.e. I don't see a general shift there. In any economical space I've seen, records are kept as long as required (either because they provide benefit or because the law mandates it), but will be deleted once not required any longer. Some might just be forgotten and lie around a bit longer, but longterm archiving is only a thing in imho very limited fields and that would mostly fit the "still required" definition. Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 20:52
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    In addition to "lost" records, many records are intentionally destroyed. Even today and in peacetime there are entire industries based on the secure destruction of sensitive data (records). Not very long ago, a company I'm familiar with arranged for the complete destruction of fire-proof "disk safe" that had been used for the secure storage of thousands of floppy disks containing the master copies of years of development work, having long exceeded the 10 year required retention period. Newer versions are held "in the cloud", making their destruction even easier when the time comes...
    – Steve
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 13:18

Your question assumes that there were no such records in ancient times. I can think of several examples:

  • Have you ever looked at the trial records of Cicero? Those were preserved because Cicero was considered a great orator, even in his time, but they include simple property cases.
  • The Egyptians recorded the deeds of their kings. Okay, that was somewhere between history and propaganda.
  • Plenty of clay tablets with inventories and contracts.

You are right that history as a scientific discipline has greatly improved over the ages, but that was not a single great jump.

  • 1
    Autobiographies are also found in ancient Egyptian tombs, although likely heavily edited. We also have things like the medical papyri and other texts that suggest they did write all of this stuff down, it just hasn't survived. Remember, archaeology is itself a recent thing.
    – pboss3010
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 16:54
  • @MarkC.Wallace, I rewrote it.
    – o.m.
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 20:19
  • Thank you - OP is a new poster, and I want to be friendly. And to exceed the minimum length for a comment.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 21:25
  • Not ancient history, but before the time period mentioned by the OP: Another example of very comprehensive record keeping are the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty 1413-1865
    – Cecilia
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 23:19
  • And as most records these days are stored digitally, and even those stored on paper use very quickly degrading material, it can happen that in a few centuries there will be more records surviving from the middle ages than from our era.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 6:28

Years ago I prepared a speech on backups and disaster recovery in IT. I started by pointing out that backups and disaster recovery are not new concepts, nor do they have anything to do with technology.

European monks spent much of their time producing off-site backups. For them this was a labourious process in which they would transcribe documents by hand which would then be sent to other monasteries. There the process would repeat. It is only through the work of countless scribes working by candlelight that so many ancient texts survive in the west. We owe them a debt of gratitude and we should also recognise that they understood concepts that many today consider to be entirely modern.

Those who don't read history are destined to misunderstand it.


Others have rightly pointed out that the ancients did indeed keep records, but I’ll add another perspective as to why your perception may be that their record-keeping was less extensive than modern record-keeping.

The simple answer is that we currently live in an age of incredibly cheap record storage and intensive over-retention of records. Between surveillance states and the data economy, all incentives align to keeping records rather than discarding them. Nearly every financial transaction is recorded and audited with high fidelity. On some websites every click or even every mouse movement is logged and data-mined. Phone call metadata is stored by the government and nearly every citizen voluntarily shares photographs with the giant global never-delete storage system we call the internet.

Audit is a billion-dollar industry. The back catalog of arts and entertainment grows continuously in value. Archives and family history have never been more accessible and popular.

So I think your question could be rephrased not as why previous societies kept so few records, but as why ours keeps so many.

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    I once heard hearsay that one sheet of papyrus used to cost as much as a meal. And keep in mind that back then never starving was a luxury of the rich. Going further back, I assume useful stone tablets were relatively more expensive. Today I casually buy paper in a package with 500 sheets, despite writing mostly into the computer. Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 11:39

While I would still prefer that this question were founded on stronger preliminary research, and I agree with many of the answers posted, I want to eat some crow and admit that the question persists in my mind. The question isn't perfect, but it is interesting, and more interesting the longer I contemplate it. So allow me to thank @gezakerecsenyi for an interesting question.

I have a hypothesis, based on Fukyama that there is a technology of human organization - sociological capital deepening. Until we have achieved a certain minimum level of social capital, it doesn't make sense to create and archive a large store of records. It would be kind of interesting to study the scope of records and circulation of records of each of the examples above and compare them to the kind of examples that OP suggests. That would require a great deal more rigor in defining the terms.

I also have a hypothesis (that I can't support) that premodern cultures viewed time rather differently than we do. If you view time as an eternal constant - the way Imperial China seems to - then you have a different motivation for keeping records than if you perceive time as leading to the end of times (as early Christian civilizations did). If you view the future as potentially better than today, that will lead to the collection and organization of records differently. Those are all high level abstractions for the sake of illustrations only - I'm not attempting to pretend that I can understand those cultures with a simple phrase.


How about the management of the limited resources?

Today's 90+ percent literacy among Europe, North America, Asia and a lot of other places is something rather new (and good, and societies worked hard for it).

In the past, it was different.

The economy was product-oriented (read: food oriented) and weaker than today in general. It didn't had the power to employ many people to do services of any kind.

Literate people were scarse, expensive to employ and busy with tasks those in power considered important.

The writing itself was expensive in tools, consumables and time.

Storing the texts was a complex task by itself. Roof that doesn't leak? Maintained for a century or two? Fire safety for extended periods? Good luck with pre-1800 technology.

  • 4
    The discovery of records like those found on birch bark in Russia have largely refuted the idea of literacy being a restricted skill in times past. This view was mostly due to the older studies defining literacy in terms of the language of the elites (Latin, etc), and would be equivalent to assuming anyone who didn't go to college was illiterate. It appears that the lower classes simply wrote more simply, on less durable materials, and less effort was spent to maintain these records.
    – Morgen
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 23:05
  • 2
    @Morgen not really. Sparks of literacy are known here and there (not only in Russia), as well as documented efforts to make the population literate here and there. Also are known cases where the services of a literate person (say, local priest) were available and widely used. Then again, universal literacy is more or less a modern acheivement. p.s. Birch bark letters are interesting.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 7:37

I think you are mistaken in your assumption. The middle ages were notorious for their record keeping, and where those records have not been destroyed (most are), we can reconstruct minute details of both noble and peasant lives (what I mean by detail: Up to the size of the market stall they rented).

Likewise, ancient Egypt kept extensive trade records, and Arab traders around the year one thousand kept diaries of their travels, some of which are among the best sources of life in non-writing societies such as the Germanic tribes that we have.

The reason why we don't have many of these records is, simply put, that paper is flammable. We have a bias in judging the extent of available records. Spend a minute to think about how much of today's records will still exist in just two or three centuries. Anything stored on any magnetic storage device will be long gone. Many paper records will be destroyed. Modern SSD drives? No lifetime even worth mentioning on historic timescales. CDs, DVDs are measured in decades, not centuries.

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