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Preserving Business History

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The following is a guest post by Abbey Potter, Program Officer, NDIIPP.  She is also Communications Officer for the IIPC.

Today’s economic situation draws parallels with the booms and busts of markets past. Policy makers, pundits and economists (we hope) try to learn from the past, to not repeat mistakes or to try and duplicate success.  David Kirsch, a long-time partner of the NDIIPP program and professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, has often referred to President Calvin Coolidge’s observation that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Then Kirsch points out, surely the history of America is the history of American business.

"Delaware's Industrial Brandywine", interactive map.

This rich history of business and economics in America is interwoven with the development, growth and change in technology and science. Business records are primary resources for historians researching our past. They help future generations know the story of American innovation.  The records that tell these stories are created almost entirely in digital form now, requiring active management and stable custody for use over the long-term. Liability concerns can lead to the destruction of many records. In addition, the records and histories of the businesses that don’t make it are in most instances abandoned after a business is shut down.

Helping to stop this loss and save the record of American business are two National Digital Stewardship Alliance members;  The University of Maryland and The Hagley Library and Museum. Kirsch has collected the business records of the Dot Com Era, ranging from business plans to individual emails and memos. These records are unique, are at particular risk of loss, and of high value to a wide range of scholars. The business plans, legal records, and email correspondence Kirsch selected for preservation have been the basis of numerous national news stories, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio. Insights gained through the study of these records about business practices and venture capital decision-making have been taught at business schools, and the results have been published in academic journals.

Scient presentation slide, from the "Birth of the Dot-Com Era" collections.

The Museum of the Hagley Museum and Library was established in 1952 to document the powder making industry on the Brandywine River in Delaware and hold the DuPont Company archives. In 1954, the Library grew from the du Pont family papers to include materials on industrial and technological history. Today The Hagley Museum and Library collects, preserves, and interprets the history of American enterprise. Digital exhibits, such as “The DuPont Company on the Brandywine“ and “Delaware’s Industrial Brandywine“ provide online access to documents, photographs and records that trace the industrial and business history of the Brandywine region from the 17th Century to the present. Hagley is also archiving websites from several of their depositors, such as the National Association of Manufacturers.

Both Kirsch and The Hagley play important and complementary roles in digital stewardship. As a business historian and scholar, Kirsch is helping to identify primary sources for current and future research while also exploring how these resources can be accessioned and used, and he says, “Creative scholars of business will always look to leading research libraries like The Hagley to find the necessary sources to understand and interpret the Record of Business.”

For its part, The Hagley Library and Museum is an established partner committed to digital collection, preservation, and curation. NDSA seeks to be an arena where members have access to expert information about current practices, tools and services, and are part of a vibrant and diverse digital preservation network. “We very grateful to our NDSA colleagues for allowing us to be part of the conversation, to share, to listen, and to learn,” says Erik Rau, Director of Library Services at The Hagley Library.

Comments (2)

  1. Regardless of format, maintenance of the archival sources necessary to undertake comprehensive and insightful study of contemporary American business poses complex challenges. Hagley and similar repositories help in this respect, but publicly- and privately-held companies must maintain their own archives for in-depth, significant study of business to be adequately served. Many corporations do this and, with the help of professional archivists, make both digital and traditional format archives accessible to management and employees, industry specialists, economists, and scholars. The Society of American Archivists’ Business Archives Section and its members strive to educate and encourage those in the business community to address this important current and future business need. We should give Hagley and similar non-profit repositories credit where it is due. However, realism demands we acknowledge that business and society both benefit when corporations establish and maintain archives on an on-going basis.

  2. Linda Edgerly’s comment is particularly true of the news industry. Large media organizations like the New York Times and Reuters have developed sophisticated capabilities for maintaining not only their own electronic communications but the digital text, image, data, and audio content that comprise their stock in trade. As CRL’s recent NDIIPP-sponsored study of the electronic news life-cycle shows, the “Long Tail” of market incentives have made long-term management of these “corporate assets” efficient and cost-effective for such organizations, and on a scale that would be hard for libraries and museums to replicate. You can read the NDIIPP-CRL report at:

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