Archives are the foundation for much of the creative work done at History Factory. This month, Sam Grabel sat down with Managing Director and Chief Administrative Officer Tim Schantz to discuss some important insights on the direction of corporate archives.

Sam Grabel: What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen in the corporate archives business over the past five years?

Tim Schantz: Probably the biggest shift is a growing awareness among practitioners and users that one of the defining characteristics of best practice is user accessibility.

Five or more years ago, it was still broad convention that archivists had somewhat of a reactive service role—inquiries would come to them for references, and they were expected to do the heavy lifting. Increasingly, there’s been broader acceptance that best practice would incorporate self-service tools that allow clients to do a good portion of that on their own: things like databases that are broadly accessible, sometimes by people knowledgeable about archival practice, taxonomies, metadata that allow them to effectively search a well-organized collection. Others have put an overlay onto those cataloging systems to allow for easier Google search types from a more limited base of content.

This is a photograph of one of History Factory's archivists looking through boxes from a company archive.

SG: So, there’s one system—archival standards—which may make sense to an archivist, but in terms of usability for clients, how do we approach that to make things a little more hands-on?

TS: Increasingly, the practice is to pull from archival systems and concentrate on what one might refer to as the “greatest hits” component of the collection—really harvesting those “golden nuggets”—to let them reside in a separate digital interface with heavily curated content. These greatest hits are broadly repurposeable by people whose experience does not allow them, or who don’t have the time to search a full archival collection.

SG: How have companies evolved their views of building and maintaining corporate archives?

TS: There are many companies that totally “get it.” Traditionally, people will toss out Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Levi Strauss, Mercedes or BMW—you could go on and on. They understand very clearly that their reputational value, which they hold dear, is integral to their success as a brand and as a business. That awareness has grown demonstrably in recent years. That’s clearly different, that more companies are seeing the value and using their collections more assertively and creatively.

At the same time, a large body of companies think of it as that stuff in the back office that has been collected by somebody who cared about it long ago. They are future-minded, and really, history doesn’t matter to them. So, that’s an opportunity for us to really engage, educate and persuade.

Addressing the access point is critical to that understanding, because as long as collections were seen to behind deep storage or locked up in Iron Mountain, people may have acknowledged it had some historical value, but it didn’t have contemporary relevance. Bringing those collections out of deep storage into the light of day and reconsidering them as relevant to today’s audiences is a critical part of organizing them properly, so that they can be called on a moment’s notice to inform today’s issues.

SG: So what’s the next big thing in corporate archives?

TS: Developing heritage content that can be a resource for social media feeds. Really creating a direct and dynamic relationship between a deep archival collection, i.e., going beyond just those “golden nuggets” that we referred to previously, and allowing social media practitioners to draw extensively from heritage assets to inform contemporary issues.


A precondition of that is being able to draw on their short-term and living history of the present to populate social media sites. In those instances, a lot of that can be drawn on digitally born content. As you go deeper into the historical record, then the physical collections need to have gone through conversion by digitizing content—which would require a broader digitization strategy to convert more and more items from the deep past and physical collections into a digital database.

SG: For a lot of companies, it’s not an option to digitize an entire collection. How would they prioritize that?

TS: I mentioned the social media feed because I think one way of establishing a strategic priority is to really think about the messaging and themes that are relevant to connecting with new audiences and ensuring that the content is available to publish.

SG: So, it would really be a more holistic approach to define strategy, goals and outcomes?

TS: Right, because among other things—leaving aside what was originally physical and requires conversion—there’s also all of those assets that may have been born in a digital age but are now in obsolete formats and can’t be accessed.

There is also a need to draw upon alternate sources of content. One of the ways that we advocate for augmenting traditional archival collections is through oral history initiatives, discovery programs, research and third-party repositories—all of which can add to an existing archival collection.


To learn more about the value of corporate archives, click here to download our industry insights paper, Corporate Archives: A Formula for Success.

Share this

More on this Topic