Corporate memory – a national treasure

Did you know that The National Archives has a Business Archives Advice Manager? Alex Ritchie is the man in question, and I thought today’s blog should introduce you to some elements of his work. It’s all part of a national strategy for business archives, in which The National Archives is a partner.

Image of the corporate archive searchroom at Roche

The home of the archives at F Hoffmann-La Roche

What’s so special about business archives?

The written heritage of Britain is not only in public hands, and represents more than individuals, families and organisations. Any commercial entity, from massive international corporations to small family businesses and sole traders, needs to maintain records to succeed. They keep accounts, staff records and production records. Designs, publicity, staff records and product images are also kept. Their value can be anything from heritage branding to patent information crucial to company income or Victorian engineering diagrams for structures still in active use today. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that many businesses retain an archive and that they are among the richest collections for historical research.

Business archives are vitally important, but also more prone to change than most. Businesses merge, demerge, form new partnerships, drop previous areas of work and generally provide a complex and shifting background for an archive operation. Recent years have also seen a lot of companies go into administration – one important element of the business archives strategy has been to work to secure the survival of their archives, which have enduring value even when the company closes. A seven-person crisis team, covering the whole of the UK, takes action, contacting the administrators and making sure that the records are not forgotten.

Over to you

We have a range of resources if you’re interested in researching business archives. For the best overview, you can search the National Register of Archives’ specialist business index, which helps you to find surviving records for particular sectors of the corporate world. With over 34,000 businesses represented, it’s an incredibly rich research tool, covering archives in public hands as well as still with their parent business. You can also find all the corporate archive services by a simple search of the ARCHON Directory. Many business archive websites give you a real insight into the company history – like Marks and Spencer, Unilever and Network Rail.

Perhaps you’d like to hear more about particular business archives? We have invited speakers to The National Archives and podcast them for your listening pleasure! Here, Dr Andrea Tanner, archivist at Fortnum and Mason, shares some of the delicious secrets of the archive (Sadly, the biscuits which accompanied the talk are not available via podcast, but I can vouch for their deliciousness). And Alexander Bieri, the archivist at the Swiss pharmaceutical company F Hoffmann-La Roche, talks about the international angle of Roche’s work, the role of corporate archives in the company today, and gives an insight into the records surviving for Roche’s UK  operations.

Are there other business archives you’d like to hear from?

You can also hear our Alex talking about his Business Archives Advice Manager role. If you’re interested in the practicalities of managing a corporate archive, or want to find out more about how companies can support their heritage, have a look at Managing Business Archives, the best practice website supporting the national business archives strategy.

4 comments

  1. Jacqui Kirk says:

    We were just talking about company archives and their future at my family history group today so finding this post is serendipitous – thanks.

    One of our members was talking about the digitisation of company archives and how it is becoming a reality in some cases.

    1. Melinda Haunton says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! The Network Rail resource linked above really shows the potential of digitisation to make a working archive accessible to a wider public.

  2. Roger Wyer says:

    Are you able to advise at PRO on the keeping of personal records by a Local Authority. I am thinking of things associated with HR – would we apply something like a 50 year rule before people could view them? Forinstance hiring, firing, disciplinary cases etc. Are these records of value to be kept (or a sample of them) I am not sure where to find guidance on this.

    1. Melinda Haunton says:

      There’s a records retention schema covering local government produced by the Information and Records Management Society (www.irms.org.uk), which should answer your questions (assuming there is no Records or Information Manager employed by the council, in which case they would be your first port of call).

      If you haven’t already done so, I would also recommend contacting the archivist at Richmond Local Studies to ensure that material of long term value is selected and transferred to the archive in a planned way.

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