Three Cheers for the National Business Archives of Canada

16 06 2009

I was very excited to discover the existence of a new organization, the National Business Archives of Canada.

From its website: “The National Business Archives of Canada is a non-profit organization with a focus on education, culture and society. This unprecedented national business heritage project aims to commemorate the events that have shaped Canadian business history: from the incorporation of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, to the introduction of the first BlackBerry by Research in Motion in 1999.

In the near term, the Archives will exist as a virtual centre and digital knowledge base of artifacts and historical resources. In the longer run, a business centre, library and public exhibit gallery are planned. Officially launched in a public ceremony on March 31st, 2009, the Archives are celebrated by a Mosaic Mural art installation at Brookfield Place in downtown Toronto. The mural depicts the most significant events in Canadian business history.”

I think that this is a wonderful, wonderful initiative. The single greatest problem facing business historians is access to corporate archives. A few companies, most notably the Hudson’s Bay Company, make their archives available to researchers. The HBC has also done a good job of telling researchers what is in their archives and that it is all available for use. Many companies, however, keep their archives totally closed to outsiders. They do so for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer administrative hassle of scheduling visits by academic researchers. Other companies have documents that they are willing to share with researchers but do a poor job of promoting awareness of their archives.

The United Kingdom has long had a Business Archives Council (BAC), which maintains a directory of records available to researchers. This list includes a short description of the documents at each company as well as the details of a contact person. Business history is a much bigger part of the historical profession and the undergraduate historical curriculum in the UK than it is in Canada. The secondary literature on the history of business in Canada is also very incomplete: most of the existing historiography is the very small number of firms with relatively open archives. As a result, Canadian historians know a great deal about the minutiae of the fur trade and almost nothing about huge swathes of the economy.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons why business history is so vibrant in the UK is the existence of a centralized clearing house for information about company archives. In the 1970s, there was an attempt to set up something similar to the BAC in Canada, but it folded within a few years, apparently due to lack of funds. I suspect that the current initiative will be much more successful, as it has received the support of Deloitte, TD Financial Group, and CN.