Using History, Valuing Archives

Event factfile

Date of event: 28 February 2019
Event ends: 1 March 2019
Start time: 11:00
End time: 14:00
Using History, Valuing Archives

Using History, Valuing Archives

A workshop organised by the Centre for International Business History, and the Heritage and Creativity Institute for Collections

The question of how business organisations make use of their history has increasingly come to occupy the attention of organisational theorists and historians (Suddaby et al, 2010; Poor et al, 2016; Zundel et al, 2016; Foster, 2017; Smith and Simeone, 2017; Hatch and Schultz, 2017). Each firm’s history is unique to itself. As such, it can be classified as rare and inimitable. Provided historical records are appropriately stored and managed within an archive, then it can also be said to be organised. In such cases we can reasonably claim that a firm’s history meets three of the four elements identified by Barney (1991) as constituting a strategic resource. The only question that remains is whether it is deemed to be valuable.

Judging by the number of companies that have chosen to invest in constructing and publicising historical narratives about themselves, it would appear that for many executives the answer to this question is: yes. By ‘investment’, here, we are talking about more than the commissioning of corporate histories destined to take pride of place on the C-Suite coffee table. Increasingly it means the construction corporate museums, or visitor centres with historical collections (Stigliani and Ravassi, 2007). It is often manifested in the public celebration of notable company anniversaries or, more durably, in the incorporation of historical images and artefacts into the interior design of company head offices (Barnes and Newton, 2018). More conspicuously, it can involve mobilising historical narratives, characters or events to serve wider branding, advertising or public relations purposes (Lubinski, 2018).

The tendency to view history as a malleable strategic resource that can support wider corporate goals may be on the rise, but what does this mean for business archives themselves, the archivists who work in them, and the academic researchers who rely on them? There would clearly seem to be an opportunity here for archivists to demonstrate their strategic importance to their employers, and for historians to develop research projects that might be seen to deliver ‘impact’. But are there also reasons to be cautious? What are the implications of viewing history (and historical collections) as a strategic resource for the way in which archives are valued (and maintained)? Does it affect the types of materials that are likely to be preserved (or discarded)? Will it affect corporate policies regarding access to, and use of, historical records by non-company personnel – such as academic researchers?

This workshop brings together professional business archivists and historians to explore these questions. What does the future hold for the way in which companies use their past? If the strategic value of business archives is indeed to be increasingly recognised and utilised, what does this mean for the practices of archivists and historians, and for the conception of a business archive as a quasi-public resource?

Questions and issues to be addressed:

- The different ways in which organizations make use of their own archives / historical records (e.g. for internal and external purposes);

- Attempts to measure / quantify the value of historical resources (either in financial terms or some other way);

- The balance between ‘authenticity’ and ‘corporate strategy’ when constructing historical narratives (should/does the history follow from the strategy, or vice versa);

- The tension, if it exists, between a firm’s willingness to recognise the strategic or commercial value of its historical records, and its willingness to make such records available for public (including academic) scrutiny;

- The management and use of archival records that are held outside of their ‘parent’ organization, i.e. where management of a firm’s historical resources are outsourced;

- The preservation / management of company archives after a firm has ceased to exist.


Barnes, V. and Newton, L. (2018), ‘Visualising organizational identity: the history of a capitalist enterprise’, Management and Organizational History, 13 (1), pp. 24-53.

Barney, J. (1991), ‘Firm resources and sustained competitive advantage’, Journal of Management, 17 (1), 99-120.

Foster, W.M., Coraiola, D.M., Suddaby, R., Kroezen, J, and Chandler, D. (2017), ‘The strategic use of historical narratives: a theoretical framework’, Business History, 59 (8), pp. 1176-1200.

Hatch, M. and Schultz, M. (2017), ‘Toward a theory of using history authentically: historicising in the Carlsberg Group’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 62 (4), pp. 657-697.

Lubinski, C. (2018), ‘From “history as told” to “history as experienced”: contextualizing the uses of the past’, Organization Studies, published online November 2018. DOI: 10.1177/0170840618800116

Poor, S., Novicevic, M., Humphreys, J.H. and Popoola, I.T.(2016), ‘Making history happen: a genealogical analysis of Colt’s rhetorical history’, Management and Organizational History, 11 (2), pp. 147-165.

Smith, A. and Simeone, D. (2017), ‘Learning to use the past: the development of a rhetorical history strategy by the London headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’, Management and Organizational History, 12 (4), pp. 334-356.

Stigliani, I. and Ravassi, D. (2007), ‘Organizational artefacts and the expression of identity in corporate museums at Alfa-Romeo, Kartell, and Piaggio’. In L. Lin, D. Ravassi, J. Rekom and G. Soenen (eds.) Organizational Identity in Practice, New York: Routledge, pp. 197-214.

Suddaby, R., Foster, W.M., Trank, C.Q.(2010), ‘Rhetorical history as a source of competitive advantage’, Advances in Strategic Management, 27, pp. 147-73.

Zundel, M., Holt, R. and Popp, A. (2016), ‘Using history in the creation of organizational identity’, Management and Organizational History, 11 (2), pp. 211-235.

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