Thursday, 20 April 2017

ICA Section for Business Archives Conference, Stockholm

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ICA event, the Section for Business Archive annual conference in Stockholm, hosted by the Centre for Business History in the beautiful Eric Ericson Hall.  The focus was on the future role of business archives and with delegates from all over the world it was quite an introduction to international business archives of all shapes and sizes.

Eric Ericson Hall in the sunshine
The keynote from Katherine Maher of the Wikimedia Foundation set the tone of transparency in a fact-resistant world.  Openness was discussed throughout the conference and is something that business archives understandably battle with for a variety of reasons.  Although I didn’t agree with some of what Maher discussed, I fully agreed with her impassioned talk on archives being the strength of companies as the store of our history and shared knowledge.

Katherine Maher's presentation

Many of the talks focussed on the use of archives in creating and strengthening brand identity.  This was the case for archives from Coca-Cola and Hallmark to Mercedes Benz and Anheuser Busch.  A really interesting point was the range of job titles of those presenting, there were even a Historian, Chief Storyteller and a Director of Heritage Communications.  Each organisation finds a different way of describing their archive department and it was great to see how they have been integrated into the structure of their organisations.

There was a lot of discussion around the value of digitisation, which no one can argue, but there was time to consider the difficulties, such as digital preservation, the push for content to be king and the public the president and also the tendency to raid the archive rather than using it as a place for thinking and discovery.  Digital issues came out top of an exercise to highlight our challenges in the next five years.  Alongside this there was:
  •       Maintaining free and open access to archive content with the increasing pressure to monetise
  •           How to preserve decision-making processes when they are increasingly on email, by phone or in instant messages
  •           Legal responsibilities
  •      What happens to our professional role as more and more content is digitised
  •          Recruitment and training of the next generation of archivists
  •          Need to train business leaders while they are at university about importance of archiving
  •          How to spread knowledge in a responsible way
  •          Lack of diversity in collections of global organisations

These were just some of the topics that were raised around the tables and show that we have some way to go to make business archives as open and accessible as our keynote suggested.

View from Eric Ericson Hall
There were a few other points that I want to mention as they really hit home for me.  One was from Jane Seaton, Historian for the BBC and a Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster.  When asked if she thought businesses had a soul she said yes.  Institutions need a memory for better and for worse and the sense of soul is held in the values of the organisation.  The values inform the actions of the organisation and this is all captured within the archive, thus ensuring that the soul of the business is preserved for future generations.

Another point that hit home was from the host Anders Houltz at the Centre for Business History in Stockholm.  He stated what we all know, that archives deal with the past and we cannot change this.  But we preserve the remnants and provide material to shape the future.  It is this last part that was so on point.  Many archives struggle with dark parts of organisations’ histories and we touched on this a few times over the conference.  It is important that archives do not shirk from this history or hide it, they must accept and own it if they hope to improve themselves and have progressive conversations about improving their work.

Words to live by

As I always find with business archive events, it was amazing to spend time with people so enthusiastic about their job.  To be a business archivist, you need to love your brand and these speakers were fantastic reps for their organisations. I really enjoyed this conference and the opportunity to learn from people managing the history of the largest companies worldwide was fantastic!