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.


Call for SHS conference panellists: public history & heritage in a global present

Jessica Moody (University of Portsmouth) and I are running a panel at the upcoming Social History Society conference (31/3-2/4) entitled Between public history and heritage: making, sharing and debating the past in a global present.

We’re looking for contributors for a broad conversation about the problematic and blurred boundary between ‘public history’ and ‘heritage’.  The panel runs over 90 minutes and the emphasis is on debate; each contributor would have around 10 minutes to talk, with plenty of time for conversation among the panel and with the audience.

We would welcome expressions of interest by 5.00 on Friday 13th February.  Please just give us a brief outline (100 words) of what you propose contributing to the conversation about the themes and questions we raise in our abstract (below) and a short biography.  Simply email us ( and or contact us through our blogs.  We are particularly looking for contributions which take fields that are often quite locally-focused into a global space.

We look forward to hearing from you!

‘Public history’ and ‘heritage’ are widely used interchangeably and without careful attention to the complex, contested and elusive – if not hidden – conceptual and practical difficulties they present. These terms matter. They affect how professionals in historical fields see themselves, their work, educational programmes – and each other; they therefore merit our serious attention. They also carry differing public understandings, images, symbolism – and power.

Public history is a field with an increasingly global reach. The International Federation for Public History held its first conference in 2014, and the International Congress of the Historical Sciences will host its first public history roundtable in Jinan next year. ‘Heritage’ has in some senses always been both paradoxically more ‘local’ and more ‘global’ in outlook. The provision of international codes of conduct as set out by UNESCO and transnational policy guidance at times sitting awkwardly against the various contested understandings of the term, its practice, policies and limitations, which are mediated by far more regional, national, and local cultural codes, and, indeed, history itself. Further, the academic field of Heritage Studies has developed immensely in the last few decades. It has developed globally, taking on a distinctly ‘critical’ tone in some spheres – the global Association of Critical Heritage Studies, which is now in its second year, holds an international conference every two years, this year in Canberra. Yet a global community of enquiry has yet to emerge to take on the debates about academic and professional identity, to engage with the blurring or elision of the conceptual space between public history and heritage, both academically and professionally.

Partly, this conceptual space is forged within and beside academic disciplines and their own boundaries. Whereas Public History can more easily be assigned lineage to History as a discipline – with roots in the historical method, albeit both inside and outside ‘the academy’, Heritage is academically a far more eclectic. However, in ‘western’ contexts, Heritage’s relationship with archaeology, has traditionally tied its study to materiality, especially in the UK. This is itself a relationship forged within the crucible of the western ‘discourse’ of heritage, which Laurajane Smith (2006) has argued foregrounds ‘heritage’ as largely tangible, old, elite, white and male.

Generally, historians – whether they label themselves as ‘public’ or otherwise – are not looking to the history of these concepts in a way which may help us explore their meaning in the present. Does the coining of ‘public history’ in the US, and its subsequent import by the UK and elsewhere obscure a longer lineage of ‘history in public’ in those countries? If historians have acquired ‘public history’ as a label for their work outside the academy, what claim to or involvement in ‘heritage’ should they have? To what extent are we acknowledging and exploring the historical, political and social ‘baggage’ that accompany these terms? These are issues which the authors, who both mediate the conceptual space public history and heritage in their professional lives, will scrutinize in this panel.