September 24, 2009 • Browser Media
When I began working at The History Factory, Chris Juhasz, director of archival services, took me on a tour of the archives (as he does with all new employees). Walking through the warehouse filled with tall stacks of neatly organized boxes, each with a customized label noting the company whose “stuff” was inside, it was hard not to get a sense of the history in the room. Even though I couldn’t see what was in any of the boxes, I knew that the secrets of many of today’s leading companies were right there in front of me. That was the first time I began to understand the importance of archives, even though at the time, it was just a vague understanding.
About a year ago, I worked on my first corporate history book project for a company whose collection was housed in The History Factory’s archives. I had worked on other books, but this was the first one for which huge volumes of research were immediately accessible to me. As the manuscript began to take shape, the archives played an increasingly important role.
We could create the skeleton of the text, fill in a good anecdote here and there, from interview transcripts, but the meaty, personal stories came from the archives. Old memos, e-mails, newsletters, they all held the real history. The history that people would want to read about. The vague notion I had staring at the boxes in the warehouse on my first day at work had finally become a real understanding of what an archives could truly do for a company.
I thought I had it all figured out . . . until a few weeks ago over dinner with my husband. A commercial real estate broker, he had been working on a deal involving a single-tenant, standalone building occupied by a national retailer. The deal had progressed fairly well until that point: Buyer and seller had agreed to a price, and the buyer was in the final stages of due diligence.
During the environmental study, however, the buyer discovered evidence that gas tanks had at one time been buried underneath the property. While the assumption was made that the tanks were removed when the current tenant built a brand-new building on the property in the 1980s, no proof could be found.
Why was there no record? The tenant could only provide an estimate for the cost of removal—seen merely as circumstantial evidence. The company that owned the tanks was technically responsible for tracking their removal, but a warehouse fire had destroyed all of their records, leaving the current buyer with an assumption at best . . . and an environmental hazard at worst.
Aghhhhh! I threw up my hands. They need an archive! I smiled grimly with the understanding that an archives does more than add the meat to a corporate history (the importance of which should not be underestimated), it can make or break multimillion-dollar deals, and, in this case, take money out of my personal bank account.