Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Three Centuries of Records

What follows is an abbreviated version of a review forthcoming in the American Archivist.

In Deidre Simmons’ history of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) archives -- Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007) -- we have one of the richest accounts of the nature of recordkeeping of one company lasting a remarkably long time (more than three centuries) and of the work of various individuals (and various kinds of professionals) to maintain the archives. Founded in 1670, the company’s archives were packed and moved from London to Manitoba (in 1975) and formally deeded as a gift to the Province of Manitoba two decades later with the establishment of a hefty foundation generated by tax savings given the company for the donation. Consisting of more than 3000 meters of records and located at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, the HBC archives continues to serve as the corporate archives of a still vibrant company. This is an “archival success story” (p. 11).

Simmons provides a rather simple purpose for her book: “This history of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives is an account of how the Company kept its records” (p. 3). We learn about how the company sought to administer its records while doing business over a large expanse of the world. We see how its London overseers sent blank journals to its agents, retrieved documents of its employees, and prepared and sent detailed instructions for how to keep records (and Simmons attributes the preparation of recordkeeping instructions as the main reason so many records survived). Written by an archivist and a consultant with sensitivity to archival issues, Keepers of the Records seeks to examine the evolution of the company’s creation of records and their maintenance and use “in the context of the history of the Company, of the history of Britain and of Canada, of business history, and of the history of British and Canadian archival traditions” (p. 10). In general, the author succeeds. How the Hudson Bay Company comes to recognize, slowly, the historical value of its records is the most compelling aspect of the book.

The author follows both changes in recordkeeping systems and the administration of the documentary sources. We learn about the early storage of records in large iron trunks, the frequent moving of the accumulated records, the occasional loss of records and the efforts to prevent such losses, the furniture and other storage devices used by the HBC, the use of copying to create multiple sets of records as a means to protect critical business administration, and the increasing quantities of records as the company’s scope of business grew and the years passed.

This analysis of the HBC suggests that the relevant recordkeeping systems were in place by the late nineteenth century and that they would continue in place through the twentieth century. Keepers of the Records seems focused on traditional records systems, and the value of three-plus centuries of records as an opportunity to consider varying formats of the records systems is squandered somewhat. The study concentrates more on the growing recognition by the HBC in the importance of its archives. Simmons ties the recognition, starting by the end of the nineteenth century, of the archival function to the growing size of the records and interest in the records on the outside.

No rosy picture is painted about the HBC’s archives, although the ultimate solution is quite positive. Simmons notes, “when business was good, money was provided for staff to work on the old records. When finances were limited, commitment to the archives was also restrained and staff were redirected or eliminated” (p. 184). This is, of course, a common fate for business archives. Simmons also describes very candidly some of the efforts the HBC took in denying access to its records to outside researchers.

It is difficult to be too critical of a company that has done so much to ensure the preservation of its archives and to allow many outside researchers to use them. The last quarter or so of Keepers of the Record follows the events leading to the successes of the transfer of the HBC archives to Manitoba and the formal establishment of the archives program. Along the road to this destination, we read about the efforts by Arthur Doughty of the Public Archives of Canada in the 1920s to get the HBC to provide better care for its archives, growing pressure by academics and other scholars for access to the company archives, and the emergence of a documentary publications program. Finally, in 1931 the HBC appointed its first archivist and opened its archives dating prior to 1870, although the Company still maintained a strict system of approval of researchers and what they were allowed to see. Hilary Jenkinson was a consultant in the creation of the HBC’s modern archives program, and this modern archives program ultimately engaged in microfilming projects, assisting in the transfer of the archives to Canada, providing broader access to the HBC archives, and adopting newer archives and records management standards and practices.

Without question, Keepers of the Records is the most comprehensive history of a corporate archives we have, trumping the rather thin literature on corporate archives in general and making a nice addition to the scholarship on the history of archives. While Keepers of the Records reads a bit like an official history and more attention to the contextual literature on the history of archives, recordkeeping, documentary editing, and information technologies might have enriched the story, this is an excellent study of a remarkable corporate archives.


At 7:57 AM, Blogger Zach said...

The HBC archive sounds like a great example for companies across the world. Perhaps this book can help archivists persuade their companies into placing more of an importance on maintaining their records.

You mentioned that the HBC is "a still vibrant company." I was wondering how this successful archive is handling the digital records being produced by the HBC and if this was addressed in Simmons’ book.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

No, this is a topic not addressed, a matter I discuss in my longer review.


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