New Report: The Succession Trap. How the C-suite thinks about leadership transitions and why it's wrong

4 Ways to Improve Your Corporate Archive

February 26, 2018 • Zenobia Kozak

Corporate archives: an invaluable asset, or an expensive burden? Perceptions of the archive range from active resource to pointless distraction. Wherever your corporation falls on this spectrum, deciding what materials to keep is challenging. Here are four ways to improve your corporate archive, focusing on what material to save and how to get started.

Tip #1: Don’t confuse a records management programs with an archive.

The average office worker receives 121 emails a day and uses 10,000 pieces of paper per year. For a company like Google, with 20 years of business and 70,000 employees, that’s a lot of information. A records management program can help identify and maintain control over these working or “active” documents. Although these records are organized and accessible, that does not mean they are “archived” or even belong in a corporate archive.

While records management programs are important, they are not focused on long-term use and preservation. Having a records management program in place does not mean you are safeguarding or preserving your corporate heritage. This valuable material is at risk of permanent loss without an archive management program.

Would you pay to preserve a paper copy of a widely circulated email if it meant losing the original diary of an organizational founder? How would you choose which files to save or destroy if you only have the space for one filing cabinet? These are the types of decisions that can wind up costing corporations a fortune — either the cost of keeping things that aren’t needed, or the opportunity cost of disposing of things that are needed. Implementing a sound records management program is a good start, but developing an archival program to work in tandem will help address these issues.

Tip #2: Identify your archival “black hole.”

This could be the gap between your records management program and your corporate archive. If you don’t have a formal archive, this is the cliff edge where historic material disappears because it’s no longer in daily use and there isn’t a process in place to safeguard it. Take digital needs into account, as well. In our experience, even companies with a well-structured, comprehensive archive have a “black hole” gap over the past 15 to 20 years, when most companies shifted to having more digital than physical records and transactions. As of 2007, almost 94 percent of corporate memory was in digital form. Some born-digital material may only exist on obsolete media — it’s the equivalent of having a movie only on Betamax. Transfer this data before it lands in the technology boneyard.

Tip #3: Recognize the value of archives.

Archival materials can be divided into two broad categories: those of “functional” value and those of “exponential” value. Functional records fall neatly into records management.

These include:

Value Type Purpose Examples
Administrative Support the ongoing day-to-day affairs of the creator Daily memos and emails
Legal Document legal obligations and protect legal rights Patents, trademarks, agreements, property records and contracts
Fiscal Establish fiscal responsibility and accountability Invoices, purchase orders, etc.

Exponential material typically belongs in an archive. These records have value beyond the original creation or intended use. For example, probate court records track deceased people’s property but are invaluable to a genealogist tracing lineage. Perhaps a more amusing example is the use of archival images and videos to produce GIFs. The National Archives offers a GIPHY channel where you can find and watch looped clips of a chimpanzee ice skating.


In the corporate setting, examples of exponential material include:

Item Original Use Exponential Value
Prototype Schematic Used in design and manufacturing process of a product ·         Authentic content for exhibits, publications, etc.

·         Ongoing product research and development

Product Catalog Sales and marketing tool ·         Authentic content for branding and marketing, sales materials, advertisements, etc.

·         Resource for research queries

Within most companies, these invaluable assets are often underutilized and represent a highly valuable asset to tap for future growth.

Tip #4: Sometimes, less is more.

Corporate archives exist to support business needs but needn’t be exhaustive. By placing intelligent parameters on the scope and volume of the archive, a corporation can ensure this resource remains in step with their mission and serves its day-to-day needs effectively, without breaking the budget. One technique to help with this is sampling. Sampling is a useful strategy that archivists routinely use to reduce the amount of material entering the archive. An archival (not statistical) sample is a portion of records selected for preservation from a larger series based on the selector’s judgment. It allows companies to keep representations of various items or records without having to keep all of them. After all, how many tchotchkes do you need from the 1964 sales conference? You cannot (and should not) keep them all, so take the time to define your needs and work with an expert to review and safeguard your content.

Now that you’re thinking about what you should keep and looking at ways to improve your archive, check out our Guide to Corporate Archives. And if you need any help or advice, contact us to learn more.



More About Archival Services

Into the Archives: Multnomah County, Oregon, with Terry Baxter

As part of History Factory’s “Into the Archives” series, we interviewed Terry Baxter, archivist for… Read More

Ask an Archivist: Tamar Chute of The Ohio State University

In our first installment of Ask an Archivist, we sat down with Tamar Chute, head… Read More

Guide to Moving Your Heritage Assets

It seems like every day brings more business headlines highlighting company moves. The pandemic has… Read More

Five Things to Know Before Starting Your Digitization Project

The following article was written by our valued partners at Digital Transitions, a global leader… Read More