The Research Value of Business Records

Documenting Change: Industry and Business in Troy and Rensselaer County, NY

Business records are especially valuable documents. They trace the development of American capitalism: they document the history of technical and managerial innovations, advertising, market development and expansion; they help scholars reconstruct and describe the evolution of labor-management and business-government relations; they preserve the history of unique business and corporate cultures; and they trace the ebb and flow of local and regional economies. Yet the importance of preserving the historical records of American industry – particularly 20th century firms – has unfortunately only recently been widely recognized.

Though American culture, society, and politics have been heavily influenced – some would say “shaped” – by American industry, few local and regional historical societies and museums put much energy into documenting and preserving the records of the economic institutions that were the bedrock of their communities. Few took the time and effort to document the often hidden worlds of innovation, competition, and struggle that lay behind the creation of the material objects they so carefully collected. Similarly, few businessmen and businesswomen recognized the paper treasures that lay mildewing in basement cardboard caskets, or the importance of treasurer’s reports, board-of-directors meeting minutes, memoranda, and transcriptions of labor-management conferences that were filed and forgotten in office or back room file cabinets.

It wasn’t until 1943 that a U.S. corporation – Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. – became the first American company to hire an archivist and initiate an extensive archival program for its records. Then and in the years that followed, only a handful of business leaders recognized what Harvey S. Firestone and his son did – that the preservation of their business’ records fulfilled both a historical as well as a business need. They helped accurately record the historical legacy of their business and aided management in making important decisions related to current and future business problems. Thankfully, in recent decades more and more industrial and business leaders, as well as archivists, have come to share Firestone’s wisdom. Large firms like General Mills, Kraft, Texas Instruments, Philips Petroleum and others have established business archives and hired professionals to maintain them. Historical societies increasingly collect business records. Academic libraries aggressively bid for the privilege of becoming official repositories of corporate archives.

The Rensselaer County Historical Society, in documenting the industrial transformation of Troy and Rensselaer in the post-WWII era, has thus joined a most worthy and important movement. This documentation project reflects the progress made over the last half-century, as well as the work that still needs to be done. It marks the beginning of a long-term effort aimed at remedying a tradition of neglect — a recognition by archivists and industrialists alike that through cooperative efforts the industrial legacy of Rensselaer County will no longer be forgotten or destroyed.

Prof. Gerald Zahavi
University at Albany, SUNY
July 1996