What does trust mean in a business archive? That was the primary theme of the joint Business Archives Council/International Council on Archives Section on Business Archives conference which took place over two days in November 2018. The theme turned out to be a stroke of genius – sparking discussions around some of the most interesting contemporary issues for business archives, and archives more generally, I’ve ever heard.
Trust in the archive is nothing new, but it is incredibly relevant to business archives which are sometimes seen as inherently untrustworthy, or occasionally even un-archival. The talks however, which covered some brilliant ideas and actions around business archives and trust – showcased that business archives can offer a particularly sharp lens on issues of trust, as it is often at the heart of what they do: helping to promote trust in a business, creating a culture of trust between a business and external parties, preserving and presenting trustworthy evidence which might otherwise be lost.
The first section, entitled ‘History is Bunk’, addressed the issue of trust in a wider sphere, encompassing perspectives of an historian, a journalist, and archivists involved in digital preservation (including the pervasive blockchain!). It is a critical element of archives that they provide evidence, even if in many cases that evidence is only in the form of traces. It is these traces that separate truth, even partial truth, from fiction. Considering how we maintain those traces in the slippery ‘post-fact’ world is vital to the archival mission, and the talks highlighted that business archives are as critical a part of that as any.
The tone for the next section, ‘Trust me, I’m an Archivist’, was set by a hilarious game of ‘Would I lie to You?’ featuring business archivists Melanie Aspey, Ted Ryan, and Judy Faraday. The gravity behind the game, for me at least, was that business archivists are sometimes considered to be less trustworthy, and the other talks in the afternoon explored trust and alignment to organisational goals in more depth. It was particularly heartening to hear from Melinda Haunton on how Archive Accreditation has been designed with business archives in mind. While not for everyone, accreditation can make archives more trusted within a business, and business archives more trusted outside!
The second day began with ‘There’s no business like a trustworthy business’, which went more into depth on businesses and trust, with talks about banking, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals – none of which are particularly trusted industries! It was particularly inspiring from a British perspective to hear of Andrea Hohmeyer’s work in Germany for Evonik Industries, dealing with an extremely complex and oftentimes dark heritage. Her work to bring to light not just specific moments from history, but also general histories such as women in the chemical industry, has had a powerful impact on trust both within and outside the company. These talks highlighted that business archives, when trusted by the business, have a rare opportunity to bring to light important elements of our societal narratives, and that working to build that trust and develop those stories can be an extremely rewarding experience.
The final section, ‘Trust sans frontiers’ brought together some vibrant talks from archivists and users of business records across the world. From the well-thought-out Panasonic archive as discussed by Yuko Matsuzaki, to the particular context of Polish business archives brilliantly expressed by Tomasz Olejniczak and Artur Jóźwik, to the anthropological study of a money-lending business in rural India by Howard Jones, I was reminded of the rich variety of archives and archival challenges faced in the world, even only under the umbrella of business archives. Our context in Britain tends to be of reasonably old, well-established brands of fairly large size – when across the world businesses might be developing much shorter heritage narratives, or being, as most businesses are, much smaller than what we envision when we say ‘corporation’.
As a new professional in the world of business archives, the vast range of experience from all the different speakers, as well as people I just spoke to over cups of tea, was extremely inspiring. In particular, it was good to be reminded of the great professionalism that links archivists together, even as each works in sometimes radically-different organisational contexts. The theme of trust, with all of its contingent, complex implications, encouraged me to consider what my job might mean in the wider world – a good outcome for a conference!
Georgie Salzedo, Archivist, De La Rue