April 22, 2021 • 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 vaguely marked boxes, or else an unwelcoming off-site bunker containing piles of papers and stacks 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 to employees both in the office and working remotely. Something that can help your organization save money, spark innovation, protect its IP and drive its future. Something quite valuable, in fact.
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.
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?
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.
But how do you put a valuation on your company’s archives? 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.
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:
The next steps are to determine where the collection will be housed and whether primary access will be in-person, digital-only or a hybrid. Then 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. Remember, in the age of COVID-19, it may be necessary to digitize more materials to expand access to those who are unable to visit the physical archives.
If most assets are already digitized or are born digital, as can be the case with younger companies, even more emphasis should be put on 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:
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 to refine, expand, and update the collection.
As with any area of your business, the emergence of COVID-19 and the resulting safety guidelines may have limited many people’s interaction with your archives. Safely guarded collections now have even more barriers to in-person access.
When designing an archives, it is important to keep in mind that you’ll need more physical space than before to accommodate social distancing. This may also include physical barriers such as plexiglass or cubicles for individual work.
You should also plan for sanitization stations—either hand sanitizer or a place to wash hands. If you decide to install sinks, make sure they are outside of the secured area where your precious historical assets are housed, in case of burst pipes. Be sure to include signage directing users to ensure their hands are clean and dry before handling any artifacts. The alcohol in some hand sanitizers could be especially damaging.
Archives are not just focused on the past. They contain documents, images and artifacts from bygone days, but they also should contain assets from the contemporary era. 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.
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 require 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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