Whether in a private, public, or government setting, all information professionals interact with their institution's history on a daily basis. Positive or negative, those legacies are vital to the future of any organization. Research projects often fall victim to limited access, poor arrangement of the collections, and little support for an archives program. But institutional history has enormous potential for beneficial internal and external uses. Opening the doors of the archives to researchers is a careful balance between access and risk management; however, the positive benefits of making use of existing historical records far outweigh the negatives.
Identifying Initial Challenges
In most organizations, archives consist of inactive official records and other historically significant material that document an institution, its people, its places, and its things. Archives should not be confused with "active" records that are still used to conduct business. Archival materials have enormous historical and secondary value that can be harnessed for a variety of purposes. The challenges of using these archival records are finding, accessing, and then understanding the material.
In the fast-paced world of corporate mergers and reorganizations, finding historical material on a business or institution is not as easy as looking in the online departmental directory, but there are some general rules to follow. If an official archives program exists, it is likely a designated person is responsible for protecting and providing access to historical material. More frequently in a private business setting, there is only a records management program, and any archival material emerging from the life cycle is often sent to an obscure location for safekeeping. Getting to know the people responsible for these collections is the key to accessing that material.
Another fount of historical knowledge comes from veteran employees, who may in fact have boxes full of material collected during their decades-long tenures or have inherited those collections from mentors of long ago. Simply put, even the most historically oblivious organizations have some archival material available.
Although archives may exist, corporate culture and tradition often make access to these materials a difficult endeavor. Sometimes, access is a privilege and not a realistic expectation. Past legal issues and protecting the institution from outside criticism are often reasons that access to archival records is limited. However, employees or contractors have the advantage of being seen as trustworthy insiders. With a strong plan for research and approval from the necessary levels of authority, these insiders can gain access to a wealth of information.
Make no mistake, research is hard work. Even if a collection is organized logically, indices or other access tools may be non-existent. The sheer magnitude of some archives is a further deterrent to research. Electronic records present the challenge of locating compatible software or hardware to view or search for information. Once persistent researchers locate relevant material, they must then understand its context. So often, original documents contain no information about the larger forces involved in their creation. Digging through dozens of boxes may be required to understand the reasons behind institutional decisions. It is also crucial to be aware of larger historical factors (from stock market crashes to politics to new laws to social upheavals) when undertaking research. Despite such challenges, historical research can be extraordinarily rewarding.
Evaluating Historical Assets
The first step of a research project is the survey. Like a journalist searching for the "who, what, when, where, why, and how," researchers want to know more about the collections, their content, and how to answer questions. While organizing the survey, evaluators should also digest any other reliable sources of institutional history, such as published histories, journal articles, or interviews with veteran employees. …