The Ins and Outs of Business Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

December 06, 2021

Calvin Coolidge once said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” This is true in many respects, but business has not traditionally received much archival attention. 

Archives are not profit-making enterprises, and haven’t always prospered in the for-profit sector. Institutional archives have more likely thrived—or, frankly, at least survived—in government settings, educational institutions, or within religious groups. In addition, business records tend to be misunderstood as huge collections, full of financial records, and hard to manage, especially if the businesses are ongoing. In many ways, business seems to be unscholarly, with a tendency to focus on the future and not the past.

The Influence of Business

Business influences everything in a capitalist society, not just the delivery of goods and services, but as a component of culture and values. Businesses should have archives to document the company’s history, become more efficient, and provide legal protection. Therefore, it is important to understand how businesses changed in the context of other changes in the world. For example, evolutions in transportation and communication, distribution and production, and the integration of mass production with mass distribution have changed both types and quantities of records.

Archivists need to understand business trends to understand potential research use beyond internal use by the business. This becomes important when an outside institution collects records, as there is a history of businesses maintaining their archives and then transferring them to repositories. 

The Evolution of Business

American business has evolved in three stages. The first is traditional when small, specialized firms or family partnerships conduct a single function, such as manufacturing. They have one or two owners. In the early days of the business, the tendency was towards oral communication, with written documentation limited to transactions, such as accounting, and some correspondence between partners and agents. Correspondence was less predictable and structured. 

The second stage is functionally departmentalized, emerging in the 1880s. Complex firms with sub-units integrated vertically to control all production and distribution phases or horizontally to control greater market shares. The business is separated into departments, such as purchasing, production, and sales. Changes in transportation, production, and communication enabled the expansion of markets, and structures became more complex. These businesses have a more routine flow of information, especially top-down, with memos and reports flowing up. Minutes are viewed as documentary records because they relate to issues rather than simply act as communication between individuals. 

The third is multidivisional, which is a decentralized operation common today. They have divisions among products, or sometimes geographically. Some records and communications are companywide; some are at the division level. Each division tends to be autonomous. 

Documenting History

There are three ways to document the history of a company: unsolicited donations, surveys, and records schedules. The first two seem accidental, while functional analysis is focused on discovering: 

  • What are the functions?
  • Which functions are more important?
  • How does the organization change over time?

Functional analysis may not work as well in a collecting repository. For example, when records are separated from the creating organization, the archivist rarely has a chance to conduct an internal analysis of an ongoing business; businesses are reluctant to open their records to outsiders. Additionally, duplication issues among corporations come into play in ways they would not exist in institutional archives. 

Communication Systems

The roles of records changed with each of these stages. Therefore, archivists need to reveal the structure of communication systems within each business. Communication acts as a dynamic system with three interrelated components: organizational structure, communication technology, and records. In addition, communications reflect and embody structure, so lines of authority are often lines of communication.

One of the key issues related to information is whether the corporation is collecting business records, leading to institutional archives—or whether the records are destined for a collecting repository, which will be managed as one of many collections.

Then there is the question of who does the collecting: the businesses or collecting repositories. Archivists in a collecting repository have the advantage of greater neutrality. However, user issues differ depending on primary and secondary audiences, which will affect what archivists collect and how they make it available. No matter who collects, records of enduring value provide a rich legacy of the business and how it has changed throughout its history. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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