Workshop report: Private Interests or National Heritage? Gothenburg, Sweden

Review of the Workshop

‘Private Interests or National Heritage? Corporate Archives and the Production of History in a Global Perspective’

Diego M. Coraiola
Peter B. Gustavson School of Business
University of Victoria

The workshop “Private interest or corporate heritage” put together by Andrew Popp and Susanna Feldman took place in the beautiful city of Gothenburg in the 25th and 26th of November. The workshop brought together corporate archivists, business historians, and organizational theorists to discuss the reasons and practices the state and organizations use to collect, preserve, provide access, and use records from the past. There was a good mix of theoretical frameworks and practical applications and cases. This brought an interesting dynamic to the workshop to the extent that presentations would complement and draw from one another. Theoretical propositions would meet with practical experience and both scholars and practitioners would benefit from an enriched view of organizational mnemonic practices.

The workshop started with Elizabeth Shepherd’s (University College London) keynote speech overviewing the history of archival science and the development of business archives in the UK. It was followed by Mats Jönsson’s (University of Gothenburg) analysis of the private ‘documentary’ ‘Das Dritte Reich’. The movie is based on an assemblage of silent amateur footage of the Nazi regime period to which the voice of a narrator and some other sounds related to the images were added, bringing specific meaning to some of the scenes. Mats then used this case to argue about the importance of media and for the future of historical consciousness. The third presenter was Andrew Smith from the University of Liverpool. Andrew’s paper was a manifest for a transparency revolution in business history. He attempts to sensitize researchers, journals, and publishers for engaging with ‘active citation’ – i.e. the inclusion of hyperlinks with full access to a digitized copy of the sources used in the production of a piece of business history.

The second round of presentations started with Karl-Magnus Johansson and his description of the Gothenburg regional state archives, followed by Anders Houltz from the Swedish Centre for Business History. Both presenters make the point that instead of looking at public and private preservation as concurrent alternatives, it would be better to think about corporate archives as integral to national heritage. While the first presentation reinforced the existing accounts about business archives in Nordic countries by describing how corporations and the state work together in Sweden, Andres introduced the original approach taken by the Center, which provides consulting for organizations on how best use their past, from records keeping to history writing. I took over after them to present a framework in which Stephanie Decker (Aston Univerity) and I try to provide an answer to the question of why organizations remember the way they do. We believe that there is more to the memory of business than private interest or national heritage and we argue that we should pay attention to the institutions at play within an organizational field. Our framework thus identifies for different models of governance for the business and management memory: public governance, private governance, community governance, and representative governance.

Neill Forbes from the University of Coventry presented the case of the digitization of the records of British Telegraph, a very challenging reality for corporate archives, and commented on the possibilities this brings for business history. Ine Fintland and Torkel Thime cheered us with the case of the Norwegian oil and gas archives and the collective project for the preservation of business archives developed by the European companies that gave rise to the European Oil and Gas Archives. After their presentation, Jarmo Luoma-aho introduced us to the Finnish state-based model of business archives and the role of Elka, the Central Archives for Finnish Business Records in preserving business archives as part of the national heritage. Our first day ended with a collective reflection about the subject and a delicious dinner at a local restaurant.

Charles Harvey (Newcastle University) was the keynote speaker for the second day. He did a wonderful job summarizing the historical turn and introducing the notion of rhetorical history to a varied audience of scholars and practitioners. He made a distinction between four types of rhetorical history based on the intended audiences and the frequency in which they are addressed. He also explored the idea of possibly quantifying the contribution of corporate archives based on a formula accounting for the direct value archives add to the business plus the value they add to the society, minus the costs of operation of the archives. In addition to the bright ideas and comments, Charles enlightened us all with an amusing performance of a Scottish cherishing and defending its hundred old invented traditions. After him, Wim van Lent (Montpellier Business School) presented an ongoing project we are working together that focuses on the uses of the past in the East India Company. This is one of the first accounts of a company interested in recording its history, and we hope to understand better the corporate interests and uses in play even before the rise of the modern notion of history and archives.

Andrew Popp (University of Liverpool) delivered the last presentation at the workshop, based on a paper he and Susanna Fellman (University of Gothenburg) are writing together. They main purpose of the paper is to develop a methodological framework based on a stakeholder approach to business archives that contributes to legitimize the research on archives for an audience of management and organization scholars. After the presentations we engaged in an open discussion about possible future plans for this stream of research and wondered about the possibility of bringing close together scholars from organization studies, history, and archival theory through joint conferences, edited volumes, and special issues. I take this opportunity to thank both Andrew and Susanna for their proactive role in organizing this interesting workshop and for the well-planned sessions and the social get together. This was a great event and I hope to see – and maybe contribute to – this idea to grow and flourish in the future.