A parallel form to the letter?

Dockets: A parallel form to the letter?

Alongside (literally alongside) the letters that the Matabeleland missionaries sent to the LMS from about 1870 on, there are ur-letters, parallel documents with an LMS printed heading. These were written as letters came in to the LMS headquarters in London, attached with a tag or similar, and they record in a summary form the details in the letters as these have been interpreted by the (unknown) person who wrote them. For convenience, they’re referred to here as dockets, but what the LMS called them is not known.

The dockets aren’t letters, or copies, or summaries, they’re something else again, as they focus just on one particular aspect of letterness, which is the communicative message involved and only some aspects of this. One of them is shown in the JPEG provided here.

These dockets – is there a better term to call them? – have a flat way of rendering a letter’s comunicative content, for numerous pages can be reduced to a numbered point provided in just 2 or 3 lines. Also, these are organisational documents, so the main content – for example, my week old baby has died, with all details of its short life provided – might be bracketed entirely, with the recorded points concerning, for example, such matters as minutes of a meeting were enclosed, payment of waggon repairs was requested, that indigenous teachers were needed on out stations and so on.

The form of the dockets is interesting, as the ‘invention’ within the LMS bureaucracy of something like an ur-letter but with the original being rewritten in organisational terms. They are in fact best seen as that weird thing, the executive summary: a shortened simplified tailored version for people further up the hierarchy to get, or rather to be given, the gist without having to read the letter itself.


Last updated: 29 May 2015


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