Moving Towards Open Data in Business History

13 04 2018

I have long been an advocate of Open Data and of the adoption of an Open Data norm in the field of business history. I recently published a paper in the journal Business History that outlines why our field needs to adopt Open Data and a system called Active Citation. What Open Data would mean in practice is that whenever a business historian cites a primary source (e.g., a letter in an archive or an article in a historic newspaper), the footnote must include a hyperlink to a scanned image of the document. This system would have a number of advantages. First, it would accelerate the digitization of primary sources and once a primary source has been put online for one purpose, it can be re-used by another researcher. Moreover, the creation of an Open Data rule in business history would be yet another victory for the research transparency movement. In the last half decade, a variety of academic disciplines have embraced research transparency and Open Data is a big part of the research transparency movement.  The requirement that raw data be published alongside the article based on that data is designed to counteract the impression that researchers sometimes use data selectively or in an otherwise unprincipled way.


Although the impetus for research transparency and Open Data has come largely from academics concerned about data mis-representation, the movement has been able to make so much progress in recent years because it has had a backer with deep pockets, the philanthropist John Arnold. Arnold was recently profiled in Wired magazine. I would encourage anyone interested in Open Data and Research Transparency to check out this article.

In view of the importance of Open Data to the future of the field of business history, it is exciting to see that an increasing number of business-historical data sources are being made freely available online.

I see from The Exchange, the blog of the Business History Conference, that The Newberry Library in Chicago has announced a major revision to its policy regarding the re-use of collection images: “images derived from collection items are now available to anyone for any lawful purpose, whether commercial or non-commercial, without licensing or permission fees to the library.”

This reform to the Newberry Library’s rule would certainly help to make it easier for researchers who based papers on materials in their collection to use Open Data in their papers. I would like to congratulate the Newberry Library on their wise decision and would like to encourage other repositories of business historical materials to follow this example whenever they are legally allowed to do so.



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