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When Creating your Corporate Archives, Don’t Build in a Vacuum

April 4, 2017 • Tim Schantz

This is a photograph of shelves full of boxes from a corporate archive.

I admit it; I love history. It may be startling to hear me, a true believer, begin by saying that heritage is too important to be left only to the lovers of history. The same is true for the raw material of heritage: your corporate archives.

At the risk of offending an entire profession, I find that many archivists are content to practice the science – and high art – of their craft in splendid isolation. Left to their own devices, dedicated corporate archivists might build a collection to its perceived perfection: preserved, protected, processed and organized according to professionally established criteria and best practices. Their work is done – or is it?

The practical reality is that all corporate assets, tangible or intangible, must be held to the high standard of economic, business and brand relevance. Otherwise, over time, the commitment of resources necessary to sustain a collection and have it continue to contribute to the culture and character of a company could become vulnerable to the changing tides of corporate fortunes and priorities. Embedding heritage assets into the very fabric of a firm requires that they be accessible and readily reusable in a myriad of formats dictated by contemporary stakeholder preferences. In other words, a corporate archive needs to give expression to the ongoing and living history of a company, not just its distant past.

With today’s globally diverse and inclusive marketplaces, the goal of any good corporate archive should be to chronicle the record of the contemporary corporation in an engaging way that speaks with energy and excitement to a wide array of modern – and future – audiences. If the goal is to reach new audiences, then new interdisciplinary approaches are required in order to fill in the gaps of a traditional documentary record base.

What does an interdisciplinary approach look like?

  • Incorporating other heritage techniques. Building corporate archives with the help of researchers, historians, curators and designers is critical to creating an archive that actually tells a story. The addition of oral histories and other creative heritage assets allows items in a corporate archive to come to life and truly resonate with a wide audience.
  • Adapting to a digital reality. “Digitization” may be the new buzzword in archival management, but that doesn’t mean you should digitize everything in your archive. However, with an increase in video, audio and other multimedia assets, it is important to adapt to and provide structure for these entries.
  • Prioritizing and pruning archival contents. Items and artifacts in your corporate archives should be prioritized based on which items have the greatest reuse value. Those items that don’t hold the same long-term archival value or are redundant should be thoughtfully removed over time.
  • Maintaining through sustainability. In order to maintain a corporate archive, it must be created within a sustainable economic framework. By not prudently rationalizing the collection to a manageable footprint – both physical and digital – resources that could be used to grow and improve the archives might be diverted toward simple maintenance. Just as with heritage preservation in general, the failure to intentionally consider the economically responsible path can put what is truly unique and historically valuable at risk.

I hope it is clear that I am not suggesting for a moment that any of us love history any less –  rather, that we love it more smartly, so that we can ensure that it remains available to inform and enlighten generations to come.

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