Business Archives in North America: Invest in Your Future, Understand Your Past

North American businesses generate more information than any other sector of the United States and Canadian economies. Sometimes this information appears on paper, sometimes on a computer disk or tape recording, sometimes in a photographic image. Part of this information constitutes a unique corporate asset that documents a company's origins, growth, products and services. Determining which part has value is the role of the corporate archivist.

The corporate archivist selects and preserves the key documents that reconstruct a company's history, products or services, and development. The result is a unique corporate asset--information and documentation that can be used for important legal, marketing, communications and financial decisions. A business archives can give managers perspective and the ability to make decisions today confident that they understand the historical context.

Today, senior managers in an increasing number of companies recognize that preservation of corporate archives constitutes an important investment in their future. In addition to a growing number of publicly held companies, a variety of smaller businesses, health-care, research and non-profit organizations have added archives to their operations.

Putting the Past to Work

Not so long ago, most companies had good corporate memories. Today, most do not. Employees rarely spend their entire careers with one company. While with an organization, talented managers seldom stay put, but move around often in order to gain new skills. New dynamics related to global markets, doing business in diverse cultures and traditions are healthy, but they can weaken corporate memory and forgetfulness tempts big risks.

Systematic preservation of corporate memory and documentation becomes all the more vital in such business environments. A business archives creates a reliable internal information system. It manages the information and significant records concerning a company's key strengths--and its weaknesses. Without the ability to select and retrieve archival materials and information, a company forfeits access to its own history lessons. With an archives, that same company gains the advantage of remembering what others forget.

Archives-supported business activities:

  • Public relations and advertising
  • Investor relations
  • Policy development and evaluation
  • Government and regulatory affairs
  • Trademark protection and licensing
  • Litigation support
  • Recruiting
  • Orientation and training
  • Employee communications
  • Case studies and corporate histories
  • Corporate, customer and product anniversary celebrations

 Understanding the the Business Archives—Distinct Role

Companies today struggle with a flood of information. A business archives is highly selective in the data and the documents that it collects. Less than three percent of all company records (electronic, hard copy or visual images) is appropriate for retention in a business archives. It complements records management or information management systems by assuring the preservation of documents of long-term management, legal, fiscal, communications and marketing value.

A business archivist seeks out documentation, regardless of its format, concerning a company's founders, corporate and capital structure, financial performance, management culture, major achievements and public image, acquisitions and strategic alliances, interaction with regulatory agencies, trademarks, and technical and management innovations. The archivist organizes the selected information and materials and ensures that they are accessible. Through document retrieval and information research, the archivist in turn serves corporate officers, managers, legal counsel, media coordinators, and other key personnel.

 Building a Business Archives

To build a business archives company management should address these key issues:

Selection of qualified personnel: How a business archives is staffed depends on the collection's size and use within the company. A Fortune 500 company with a well-established archival program typically has two or three professional archivists, and a professional-in-training or one clerical person. However, it is not the number of archivists, but the professional's qualifications that ensure a successful archival program. A full-time or consulting archivist's credentials generally includes a master's degree, course work in archives administration, service as an intern in another archives, active membership in a professional association, and certification by the Academy of Certified Archivists. It is important that any initial effort produce a comprehensive archives plan that includes a mission statement, cost projections, a records survey, space and staffing needs, a work plan and disaster recovery program. Before hiring or contracting with an archivist, contact the Society of American Archivists or a business archives in your area for information.

Defining the collection: In terms of records collection, the archives may have a broad or narrow focus depending on its mandate and the company needs. In addition to providing research support, and selecting and retaining important records, an archives may need materials of use in the preparation of case studies, conducting and collecting oral history interviews, developing of exhibits and publications, and visually representing the company's history and culture.

Allocation of space and equipment: Depending on the projecting size of the collection, an archives should have sufficient storage areas, where temperature and humidity can be controlled.

Determining access: Most business archives retain some proprietary records that carry a ørestricted accessÓ designation. One of the archivist's most important jobs is to ensure that all access restrictions are scrupulously observed. If certain portions of the collection are to be accessible for scholarly research, they can be earmarked as øopen,Ó and space should be allocated for outside researchers.

Communication of the archives' purpose: A corporate statement of purpose for the archives is essential for company employees to understand that there are specific business benefits, and that the collection of archival material is an active ongoing process designed to assist corporate planning and growth.

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