Mobilising business archives through collaboration

1Business archivists know their collections contain treasure. Scholarly value is one thing, and many business archives are open to researchers. Value to the parent business – beyond CSR or the PR benefits of public access – is not so easily demonstrated. It’s not that company history isn’t marketable. Many businesses use stories and images from the past for advertising or staff engagement. It’s that, beyond the major anniversary or the heritage-oriented campaign, how do archivists make the business case for investing in the archive service and its expert staff?

This is the challenge I’ve been working on with a growing network of business archivists. We’re seeing it as a problem shared. That is, making that ‘business case’ as strong as possible is better done collaboratively. Academics and archivists can combine their complementary forms of expertise, co-designing projects using the collections to address current business issues. Co-design is key. This isn’t about commissioned histories but about genuine, mutually-beneficial collaboration, in which both parties’ concerns, needs and priorities are part of the conversation from the outset.

Any collaboration is an ongoing dialogue. There will always be discussions and accommodations, so this approach may only work as part of longer-term, trusting relationships between researchers and archivists. But we think the potential is there to mobilise business archives in new ways and to demonstrate the value of the collections as unique, irreplicable sources of business intelligence. My work with Judy Faraday from the John Lewis Partnership Heritage Centre on the history of pay policy in the company has tried to do just that (academic article is OA here).

To help realise this potential, we’ve drafted (collaboratively!) some guidance for business Sept workshop flipchart 2archivists on collaboration with academics. It aims to complement the existing generic guidance for collaboration between archives and Higher Education published by The National Archives, providing content tailored to the business archive sector. We’ve also shot some short films to accompany the document, with advice from archivists on each section of the guidance based on their experience of collaboration. All these resources will be released through the Business Archives Council this Autumn.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in hearing more about the project, check out this short film, which is being shown at the annual conference of the International Council on Archives Section on Business Archives tomorrow (18th September), and at the BAC conference in November. If you’re working in a business or organisational archive, please give us your feedback on the film in a short survey. Everything we’ve done on this project has been through discussion and collaboration with business archivists, and it’s just as important at this stage, so please do leave your comments and ideas – and get in touch if you’d like to find out more, or get involved in the project.