Corporate communications

Companies step back in time through their archives to find inspiration for today

The company archive is not a dusty repository but a vibrant source of information and inspiration

Implementing a company archive might not strike most people as a priority in these days of ongoing economic stagnation, but it seems that despite budgetary restraints and the rise of multi-media platforms, many companies are dusting down their old ledgers and bringing their corporate histories to life.

Alex Ritchie, business archives advice manager at The National Archives, explains: ‘The most significant development of recent years has been the willingness of companies to invest heavily in their heritage and archives.’

Ritchie highlights the opening of the M&S Corporate Archive last year, but adds that other businesses, such as international banking group HSBC and Somerset-based Clarks Shoes, with a history dating back to 1825, have made similar commitments.

‘The John Lewis Partnership has ambitious plans for a new archive centre and Diageo has recently announced a £1.5 million expansion of their archive in Scotland,’ he explains. ‘Other initiatives have included the launch of Network Rail’s virtual archive, public access to the Bank of England’s archive catalogue and a large-scale digitisation project by BT.’

The big brand picture
For Marks & Spencer (M&S), an archive makes some sense. With a history dating back to 1884, when Polish refugee Michael Marks opened a market stall in Leeds, with the slogan Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny, the high street chain now serves more than 21 million people every week.

‘Marks & Spencer is part of our national identity,’ explains the store’s archivist Katharine Carter. ‘The way that M&S is interwoven into British culture means that [the archive] isn’t just about M&S history, it’s the history of our high street, it’s the history of how our lives have changed as consumers. It’s a fascinating insight into social history.’

The challenge in opening the archive was to make Marks & Spencer’s history as accessible as possible to as many different people as possible, explains Carter. ‘We’ve done that in a combination of ways so that it doesn’t matter where you are, you can share in the history.’

The way that M&S is interwoven into British culture means that [the archive] isn’t just about M&S history, it’s the history of our high street, it’s the history of how our lives have changed as consumers

The archive, which is based at Leeds University, is one of the few open to the public. A permanent exhibition, features historic garments and films and photographs, with interactive exhibits, such as the retailer’s cinema adverts from the 1950s, and a collection of employee magazines dating back to the 1930s.

A Penny Bazaar stall has been installed at Leeds Kirkgate Market, which marks the start of the first M&S Heritage Trail, which takes an hour and half to walk, featuring places known by Marks, around Leeds. There is also a schools programme, with workshops that draw on the archive collection, and regular events, such as a recent 1940s day. All this is integrated into a ‘Marks in Time’ website that encourages interaction and gives visitors online access to much of the 70,000 item collection.

But Marks & Spencer is not alone in using its company archives to reinforce its place in the national psyche. ‘Sainsbury’s heritage is central to our values as a business, so it’s important to keep this alive and accessible for our customers and the people who are driving our company forward today,’ explains company secretary and corporate services director Tim Fallowfield.

The Sainsbury’s Archive is not actually part of Sainsbury’s, which was founded by husband and wife team John and Mary Sainsbury in 1869, and whose descendants played an active role in the management of the supermarket group until 1999. ‘In 2002, a two-year exercise was organised by the Museum of London Docklands on behalf of Sainsbury’s,’ explains Claire Jackson, archivist for the Sainsbury’s Archive at the Museum of London Docklands. ‘This was the very first audit of the family’s collection, which was found to contain over 10,000 items.’

With a wealth of material, the decision was made to establish the archive as an independent charitable trust – an increasingly popular option, Jackson adds, for companies who want to safeguard their heritage for the future and make their archives more accessible for wider education and research. It also places the Sainsbury’s brand at the heart of social history while distancing the archive from marketing campaigns that might deter visitors.

The collection opened to the public in 2005 as part of the Sainsbury Study Centre at the Museum of London Docklands. It includes displays featuring store design, uniforms, early packaging and advertising, a search room for researchers to consult the archives, computers for online searching and a library of books, journals and reference material.

Favourable foundations
Such efforts are, of course, supported by a company history that is worth talking about. Transport for London (TfL), for instance, has played a huge part in modern British history. It dates back to 1902 with the formation of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London. ‘The organisation has employed easily over 500,000 people in its history, and we today are trying to ensure that their knowledge does not remain tacit,’ says Tamara Thornhill, corporate archivist at TfL.

The volume of existing material also makes an obvious difference as to whether a company will spend the requisite time investing in an archive. The establishment of the TfL archive was helped by the 1962 Transport Act, which gave record keeping for good business practice a legal framework that was supplemented by the 1969 London Regional Transport Act. With the requirement for such record keeping, so came an obligation to preserve a corporate memory and chart organisational development.

Transport for London appointed its first qualified archivist in 1991, a role that now oversees an archive collection of more than 18,500 boxes containing in excess of 150,000 files, comprising the company’s records on policies, planning, design, finance, health and safety, architecture, lost property, property and more. The latest addition comprises the records from the London 2012 Olympic Games. ‘Our readers are students, genealogists, academics, internal staff, authors, the media, and just those with a particular interest,’ says Thornhill.

The business archives of TfL are important because we preserve the evidence for our knowledge. How does the business know what it knows? Because it has the evidence in its archives

Is it worth the time?
But while sounding impressive, archives must require a phenomenal amount of resource. Thornhill agrees that the main challenge facing Transport for London’s corporate archive team is the increasing workload being managed by its two archivists. For example, work has been done to enhance the profile of the archives internally and externally, through better web and intranet pages, publishing catalogue and subject guides, exhibitions and the creation of a digital archive already containing several thousand documents. All this is vital, says Thornhill, to prevent a digital black hole in TfL’s corporate memory.

But this work brings with it an increased demand for the archivists’ services, who need to prioritise a growing list of services, including managing enquiries, appraisal and selection, cataloguing, digital record-keeping, outreach (currently comprising internal exhibitions but with plans to extend into publicly available online exhibitions) and strategic planning.

Indeed, so extensive is the task of building and maintaining Transport for London’s corporate archives, that the archivists now employ a team of volunteers to support their work. For Transport for London, though, preserving the corporate memory is more than contributing to British identity, improving external engagement or even meeting legal recordkeeping requirements. It is critical to the organisation’s operational development. ‘The business archives of TfL are important because we preserve the evidence for our knowledge. How does the business know what it knows? Because it has the evidence in its archives,’ says Thornhill. ‘How can the business prove its decisions and rights? Because the evidence is preserved and made accessible.’

Proving its value
The National Archives’ Ritchie agrees that archives can prove important for protecting a company’s rights and corporate reputation. ‘[Corporate archives] have a crucial role to play in the protection of patents and trademarks, where a lack of supporting evidence may result in the failure of litigation,’ he says. Company archives can also provide answers to questions that no serving employee may be able to answer, as well as provide inspiration for new product development and innovation.

This is not news to Marks & Spencer’s design team, which frequently delves into the archive collection to inspire new products. Such initiatives can then be a valuable way of reinforcing the value of the archive if that product sells well, says Carter.

Sainsbury’s holds a dedicated research day once a week for colleagues to visit and look at material from the archive, including film and images for various campaigns and initiatives. ‘The archive is often the first point of call for heritage imagery and has supplied images for product packaging and for heritage branding inside new stores,’ says Fallowfield.

At TfL, internal users now constitute the archive’s second biggest user base. ‘We have recently helped the Freedom of Information team, the intellectual property rights team (copyright), land and vesting team (protecting assets from outside development and works), solicitors, the heritage team, and the press office,’ says Thornhill.

The archive is often the first point of call for heritage imagery and has supplied images for product packaging and for heritage branding inside new stores

For private bank Coutts, with a heritage dating back to 1692, this is all about adding additional depth to the business. ‘Promoting the history demonstrates the business is not just a private bank but a bank with a real, provable history,’ says archivist Tracey Earl. ‘A business that values its heritage and which has gone to such lengths to retain its archives over such a long period is perceived to be more deep-rooted, inspiring confidence and what’s more, exceptional at what it does because it has been doing it for over 300 years.’

Coutts measures the value of its corporate archive by the many requests from the modern business for an historical perspective. The archives have regular internal involvement in pitches, events, sponsorships, public relations, product design and brand. ‘The more historical reference points there are available, the more opportunity the business has to make informed decisions,’ says Earl in the context of rebranding exercises.

The corporate boredom factor
But while the idea of a bank archive does not seem as exciting or sexy as that of a retailer or supermarket, the reality is quite different. Coutts has customer ledgers dating back to 1712, which include the accounts of famous people such as Charles Dickens, the first Duke of Wellington and painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. It also has a large collection of correspondence from the 18th and early 19th centuries, furniture and banking paraphernalia, works of art and the unusual category of ‘customer oubliette’, comprising items deposited by customers and never collected. The collection even includes Chinese wallpaper that dates from 1794, and now adorns the boardroom at Coutts’ headquarters at 440 Strand. ‘Clients are fascinated by our archive. They love the idea of Coutts having such a long history, with connections to some of the most interesting historical characters,’ says Earl. A preserved archive also helps create a brand perception around Coutts. ‘We are able to highlight some very positive business characteristics with archive material – such as stability, continuity, attention to detail, discretion and experience.’

The corporate archive has obvious value for companies that have both a long heritage and a real business purpose for exploiting its potential. It takes significant resource to pull such collections together, but for older companies the material is already there. The challenge is to catalogue and bring out its value. An additional hurdle is keeping the momentum going, says Ritchie, ensuring an archive doesn’t just become a ‘forgotten backwater’ but a living resource that meets ongoing business needs.

‘Most business archives’ biggest challenge is funding,’ says Karen Sampson, secretary at the Business Archives Council. ‘They have to constantly promote themselves within the parent organisation and prove that they add value to the company.’But more companies now embrace the idea, even if they are taking small steps. As Ritchie says, a section on history is now a standard component of many corporate websites, and an increasing number of companies are investing time in building a Facebook profile that features a well-populated timeline. For some this may be the beginnings of a more extensive collection.

It may seem strange that companies would invest in an archive in this more difficult economic climate. But perhaps on another level this is exactly what is propelling companies into their past. ‘This is possibly brands using their heritage in times of economic crisis to show they’ve been around a long time and weathered other crises – the underlying message being you can trust/rely on the brand,’ says Sampson.

It may not be enough to sell an archive to all management boards, but there is clearly a case to convince some companies that the time has come to fully exploit their heritage.

This article first appeared in Issue 77