A Plea for Business Archival Records

By Flesher, Dale L | National Forum, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

A Plea for Business Archival Records


Flesher, Dale L, National Forum


Important aspects of financial, economic, and social history depend on the availability of archival source material. The archives department at most libraries has vast holdings of old manuscripts composed by writers both famous and not-sofamous. Also, political papers are widely available because almost every former Congressman has donated complete files to libraries for the benefit of future historians. These political papers usually include every document with which the politician ever came in contact. For some reason, political figures believe that the documentation of American history would be inadequate without their notes to the milkman.

Unlike political records and writers' manuscripts, business records are not nearly so common, nor so widely appreciated. In fact, the shortage of business archival records presents a hardship for many professors and college students who would like to do business-history research. Three main reasons account for the lack of business records in library archives. First, business executives are not aware that their records are of academic importance. Whereas politicians sometimes overestimate the value of their papers, business managers tend to err in the other direction by underrating their documents. The second reason for the scarcity of historic business papers is that business managers may fear that competitors will obtain trade secrets if records are made available in a public library. This objection usually can be overcome by not placing the most recent records in the archives. After all, how much damage could a competitor cause with data applicable to 1945 and earlier? The third reason that business records are scarce in archival collections is that archivists often have been indifferent toward, and unappreciative of, commercial documents. Traditionally, archivists have been librarians with no business background. Consequently, they do not understand the importance of old journals, ledgers, canceled checks, financial statements, trial balances, and other forms of business correspondence.

The purpose of this column is to combat the first two reasons: that is, to convince business owners and managers that their records are academically important and should be donated to library archives. Indifference of librarians can only be overcome by future use of those business documents that are made available.

IMPORTANCE OF OLD BUSINESS RECORDS

Perhaps the easiest way of explaining why old business records are important is to quote Cicero: "If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge." In other words, business history should be studied to avoid repeating mistakes in the future.

Accounting and business management techniques are products of their environment. Consequently, a study of past accounting, marketing, and management practices, and the environment in which they thrived, leads to a better understanding of the present and to development of new ideas for the future. The importance of a knowledge of the past cannot be overemphasized. Research in the area of business history has often been inadequate. As a result, there have been many "rediscoveries." This means that many modem attempts at innovative business management are repeats of methods tried, and abandoned, in the nineteenth century. Therefore, one of the overall objectives of business history research is to "rediscover" a few things before too much effort is spent by others in "discovering" them for the first time. The shortage of archival records, however, hinders research of early business practices.

More than business history is involved. The study of social history, too, can be improved with the wider availability of business archival records. For example, the institution of slavery might be better understood if so many plantation records had not been destroyed during the Civil War. …

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