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Guide to Company Archives

February 6, 2020 • Sam Grabel

When organizations come to History Factory for help with recording and telling their histories for business purposes, such as for a corporate milestone or social media campaign, we typically start our research in their corporate archives. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised that the organization has a securely housed, readily accessible archives with a coherent archival plan, overseen by a staff archivist with formal training and a passion for both history and the company. More often than not, however, we’re directed to a storage closet overflowing with boxes with no categorization or even descriptions of the content, or a bunker-like basement room offsite with a single flickering light bulb dangling from a string and piles of papers and boxes of artifacts.

If your company is anything like the first one described, congratulations. Please keep doing what you’re doing. If, on the other hand, you’re like the majority of companies and your archives resembles the latter example, it’s not too late to transform your boxes of memorabilia, memos, photos, films, artifacts and the like into something accessible, usable and valuable. Something that can help your organization save money, spark innovation, protect IP and drive its future.

This guide can help you move from disarray to order. It provides context for the important role of archives in contemporary business. It will also cover some practicalities that might not be obvious when creating and maintaining the archives, as well as future trends in archiving.

Table of Contents

Purpose and Role of an Archives

Determining ROI for Creating an Archives

Practicalities of Creating and Maintaining an Archives

Trends and the Future of Archives

 

Purpose and Role of an Archives

This is a photograph of a corporate archivist looking through the Sherwin-Williams company archives and laying out selected media on a table.

Archives are not valuable to an organization simply because they exist. Today’s corporate archives maximize their value when they are accessible to their constituents for continued use in an organized and thoughtful way. They are unique heritage assets that contain the ethos of the company, which can be drawn upon for any number of business objectives. As such, archives are an important tool for any organization that can help perform the following functions:

 These are just a few examples of the value that a corporate archives can provide to an organization. But how can you measure that value?

Determining ROI for creating an Archives

This is a photograph of two archivists investigating stored media in a company archive. The person on the left is examining advertisements, while the person on the right is looking through a book.

Organizations are often pulled in many directions, with different departments competing for finite resources. When funding any business initiative, it’s critical to affirm that it will provide an adequate return on investment. An effective corporate archives should be no different. In addition to the benefits outlined above, heritage assets found in your corporate archives have the ability to inform collective memory and corporate culture and:

All of these are very real benefits of an archives that can be measured using basic metrics of time and money saved. There are also less measurable but still very real benefits of having a corporate archives. For instance, brands built on authenticity and heritage, such as Levi’s and Harley-Davidson, rely on their archives in order to build out brand messaging and differentiate themselves from competitors.

Practicalities of Creating and Maintaining an Archives

This is a photograph of an archivist holding media from Black and Decker's corporate archive. They are assembling pieces of media on a desk for a project.

It’s never a good idea to build a corporate archives in a vacuum. History Factory urges its agency clients to Start with the Future and Work Back™—meaning begin with your desired business outcome and tailor a content or activation strategy to achieve those goals. Likewise, we suggest that archival clients begin by examining exactly why they want an archives, and then build it for that end use.

First, an enduring archives should have a pragmatic and strategic archival policy. This may require adapting the principles of organization and maintenance governing traditional academic archives to better serve contemporary stakeholders and diverse use cases. Get started by:

  • Outlining intended use in a mission statement
  • Surveying and documenting the collection
  • Creating taxonomies and related hierarchies
  • Applying detailed descriptions and associated metadata
  • Identifying gaps in the collection and filling them through third-party repositories, discovery initiatives and oral history programs, among other techniques
  • Creating acquisition and deaccession policies (adding to the collection and getting rid of the “stuff” that you don’t need)
  • Outlining access policies and procedures
  • Creating digitization plans and executing against them over time

The next step is to determine where the collection will be housed and start building the collection. If you’re building from scratch, we highly recommend involving a credentialed archivist who has been formally trained in the art of archiving.

Remember, your collection might be made up of physical assets as well as digital ones, such as email records, social media posts, websites and audiovisual assets. If the collection is primarily made up of physical assets, it might be necessary to plan to digitize those materials. If most are already digitized or born digital, as can be the case with younger companies, even more emphasis should be put on intentionally capturing history as it is created due to the sheer explosion of content generated in a digital age. Digital assets have a shorter shelf life than one might expect.

If you’re consolidating, expanding or moving a collection, check out our comprehensive guide to moving your heritage assets. In it, we discuss how to transport and design a specialized space for your archives and some key things to keep in mind when doing so. They include:

  • HVAC and humidity controls
  • Levels of incandescent and ultraviolet light
  • Protection against infestation
  • Fire and flood detection and suppression
  • Shelving and storage solutions
  • Security measures and access controls

Even if you’ve completed all of these steps in the past and have a fully functional archives, it’s still possible to improve your corporate archives’ usability and accessibility, and/or refine, expand and update the collection.

This is a screenshot of Sherwin-Williams' digital archive. A piece of digitized media is displayed on the screen.

Archives are not just focused on the past. They contain documents, images and artifacts from bygone days, but they should contain assets from the contemporary era, as well. History is happening all around us constantly, and if we are too focused on the past, we miss recording the present.

Items created in the past and in analog formats have a much longer shelf life than those that are born digital. Technology moves at such a fast pace that storage devices and other hardware become obsolete after a relatively short amount of time. This phenomenon is what we refer to as the digital black hole.

Remember those VHS tapes from 20 years ago? When is the last time you watched one? How about a DVD, for that matter?

Meanwhile, physical documents from the past are on display at countless museums. Now is the time to recognize where your organization’s digital black hole might be and implement a plan to retain and even create current history in a meaningful and lasting way.

Now that we have your attention, the future of archives are not all doom and gloom. Some very exciting emerging trends in corporate archives include:

  • Better and more reliable digital storage solutions
  • The shift from passive research to interactively curated collections
  • Increased use of and sophistication of technology to access materials
  • Automation to accelerate professional processing
  • Adaptation of blockchain to verify authenticity and provenance

Conclusion

This is a photograph of boxes in a company archive. The prominent box in the foreground is labeled 'Fragile'.

Creating a comprehensive corporate archives can seem like a daunting task. A lot of skilled labor goes into surveying, organizing and creating a digital catalog of archival assets. Although a professional archival program may necessitate a significant upfront investment, it can pay substantial dividends.

We have defined the purpose and role of archives, how to support the investment, and how to build and maintain archives, as well as trends for the future of corporate archives. Contact us to find out how History Factory’s archival services can help your organization achieve its business goals.

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