University of Melbourne Archives

Challenges to the Society in Preserving Business Heritage of Australia

Professor David Merrett
Department of Management
University of Melbourne

Challenges, what challenges?

The title of the symposium, 'Where have all the archives gone', resonates with Pete Seeger's famous song 'Where have all the flowers gone?' Its lyrics are a story of despair and loss. They tell of a recurring cycle of tragedy. Young men leave their loved ones to go off to war, never to return. The children left behind, particularly their daughters, play amongst the flowers that fill the graveyards. They in turn become mothers of sons destined to die. Do our organizers imply that our business archives are also going to 'graveyards every one'?

I do not believe so. The people here today, representing a broad range of interests within the Archives profession, will use their considerable energies and influence to ensure they survive. However, as I thought about what I would say today, I became increasingly pessimistic about whether it will be possible to break in a decisive fashion the cycle of periodic 'crises' in archive funding and institutional support.

I would like to offer my perceptions of the issues before the symposium as a sympathetic and, I hope, a reasonably well-informed outsider. Archives are an important part of my life. As an historian of banking and business I have undertaken research in public and private archives in Australia and overseas. I have the honour to be the current Chair of the Archives Advisory Board of the University of Melbourne Archives. Moreover, I have donated materials to an archives under the Cultural Gifts program. Not the least, some of my best friends are archivists!

Let me say at the outset that I believe as passionately as any of you in the importance of business history. I see it as central to the understanding of what we are as a nation and the process by which we got here. Business is probably the most important non-government institution in Australia. It is the most important creator of wealth, it is the greatest provider of employment, and it is the source of changing technologies and innovation. We know little about it and, sadly, seem indifferent to whether we as a people understand it or not. That's part of the problem facing this symposium.

The fact that so many people have come to Canberra to attend the symposium suggests that the theme has struck a chord. Is there a crisis? Are archives holding business records, the critical piece of infrastructure supporting our nation's business heritage, about to disappear? The threat to the existence of the Noel Butlin Archive Centre, one of the country's most important repositories of business records, has passed. A quick search of the internet revealed that an impressive amount of infrastructure is still in place. The ASA, with its council and branches in all states and territories, has been in existence for decades. Its directories list hundreds of archives throughout the land. The Commonwealth government has been offering tax incentives to donors through the Cultural Gifts program since the 1970s. Some $195m have been foregone in tax since the scheme began. The public sector's national, state and territory repositories provide the bedrock of a national system of document retention that captures at least a part of the business heritage.

My view, that may disappoint or annoy those of you who fight to defend your budgets and staffing levels, is that the most serious threat to the archival infrastructure comes more from the nature of the collections within archives, the manner in which the materials already held have been used by historians and the increasing difficulties we face in adding to those collections, than from budgetary pressures. A question: If the Commonwealth in a moment of unlikely madness gave each archive another $10m, how would you prioritize its expenditure? What activity would add greatest value to the business heritage of this country? I am sure that there would be many worthy projects. More could be allocated to preservation, improving finding aids, digitization, new and better buildings, and more staff. However, simply having more money to maintain the status quo would not solve deeper seated issues.

What proportion of the material that makes up our national business heritage has been preserved in those hundreds of repositories, ranging from in-house firm archives, libraries and archives, most particularly in the large specialist archives such as the Noel Butlin Centre Archive and the University of Melbourne Archives? We are fortunate to have a record of what remains of the records of the largest companies in Terwiel, Ville & Fleming (1995) Australian Business Records: An Archival Guide. This source has been updated by Bruce Smith's online version that was launched in 2000. Impressive as these achievements are they capture only a minute fraction of the records created by businesses operating in this country. What's been missed is probably lost irretrievably.

What has been captured takes up lots of shelf space. It is expensive to manage these collections. Has the collecting done in the past captured what is most valuable in understanding our business heritage? I am sure that it is not. For instance, the University of Melbourne Archives recently undertook a variant of the 'Minnesota Method' to test the representativeness of its collection against a 'map' of the Victorian economy at different points in time. The results showed that the Archives' collection had alarming gaps with respects to key parts of the economy. This collection, rich and diverse as it is, does not allow us to reconstruct a complete picture of economic activity in the city of Melbourne and state of Victoria. The problems got worse the further we went into the past and as we came closer to the present. There is an additional point to consider. What of the nature of the materials deposited by each institution? Once again, work done at the University of Melbourne Archives demonstrates that the deposits differ markedly in terms of the scope and quality of material. Many of the collections comprise only scraps or fragments that would not bear the weight of serious scholarship. Thankfully, others include a more comprehensive set of records including board minutes and papers, balance sheets, sales data, contracts with suppliers and customers, correspondence series and the like. They have material enough for exploring and interpreting our business heritage.

How often have these records been used to provide interpretation of business heritage and its place in a wider understanding of Australian experience? My guess is that the majority of business records held in Australian archives have never been used. It may be that the numerous omissions within the archives have deterred people from writing histories celebrating our business heritage. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that the majority of the modest numbers of significant interpretative business histories published over the past decade have not been the fruit of lengthy and lonely toil in an archive. There is a growing trend towards biographies of contemporary business people, often written with their co-operation, based largely on interviews rather than more impersonal and detached studies of their businesses. These are very distinct genres.

The distinction is important. The archival or documentary records are raw materials that have to be converted into a text that finds an audience. The author adds 'value' to the records through the act of research and authorship, of finding a structure and a story from a mass of material. This conversion process requires a high level of specialist skill spanning industrial organization, management, finance, marketing and so on, and the ability to write an interesting story. Business history is a serious academic discipline in the northern hemisphere. It is a compulsory part of the Harvard MBA program! There have been huge strides in the sophistication of its methodology as a result of a fruitful interchange with the management and international business literatures. The discipline is moving away from stand alone business biography to industry studies, comparative studies, the exploration of themes such as gender, technology or marketing that transcend individual firms, and the use of meta-data sets such stock prices and accounting data of all companies listed on the stock exchange.

Serious and more popular books about business firms are in the lists of leading publishers around the world and they sell well. There is a good supply of outstanding authors. By and large, but with a few outstanding exceptions, this is not the case in Australia. Fewer academics with formal training are drawn into the field as Departments of Economic History have been closed. Scholars in management are deterred from undertaking research in business history as the refereed international journals in which they must publish favour theorizing and quantitative research methodologies over qualitative research. If we benchmark Australian business history against the best being published overseas we are falling behind.

I see a clear link between the failure of business history to capture the public imagination in Australia and the concerns felt by those collecting and caring for business records. It is important to reflect on the impact of an earlier generation of economic historians on the wider domain of Australian history. In the 1960s in particular, leading scholars such as the brothers Sydney and Noel Butlin, and the ever-green Geoffrey Blainey, brought about a sea change in the way we interpreted Australia's past. In a very important fashion their re-interpretations rested on the use of business records. Syd Butlin and Geoffrey Blainey wrote wonderful business histories while Noel Butlin's monumental account of the nature of economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century drew heavily on business records at a critical juncture in that story. Those records formed the nucleus of the Centre that now bears his name. Sadly, the influence of these books in shaping the broader historical discipline has waned of late. Business history is conspicuous by its absence from the current 'history wars'.

It is time for business historians to open a new 'front'. Until the wider public have been persuaded that business heritage is critical to an understanding of this country's past, all the lobbying in the world will have little effect. The missing ingredient is vibrant scholarship that challenges existing interpretations, that informs and entertains.

How successfully are we adding to the stock of records being housed within archives? My sense, based on the experience of University of Melbourne Archives that seeks a 'targetted' set of accessions, is that progress is painfully slow. There are many reasons for this. Those seeking records from private firms can only look with envy at the archives housing records from the public sector. Legislation underpins a constant drip of records transfer. On the other hand, private firms, by and large, can do with their records what they wish. Most destroy records that are perceived to have outlived their commercial usefulness or that might be of embarrassment. A minority of firms have chosen to preserve their records, either in-house or through depositing them with an archive. A smaller sub-set of these have encouraged the use of those records through commissioning histories.

What sorts of factors prompted, from our perspective, such good corporate behaviour? Such benefactions took place in the pre-1980s and 1990s environment. Firms were more confident then that their 'histories' would strike a positive note with the wider community. Many such histories celebrate longevity, 50, 100 or 150 years of existence, and of important relationships with their customers, suppliers and employees, and with localities and communities. These books often resonated with a strong sense of pride in achievement, of civic virtue, and of nation building. Some of the authors were long serving employees or relative of the founder. Some were more akin to genealogy than serious business history.

In my experience the combination of circumstances that encouraged preservation, and donation of business records and the commissioning of histories has altered. The 1980s and 1990s, decades of buccaneering behaviour by corporate 'entrepreneurs' and of highly publicized episodes of greed, incompetence and malfeasance shaped the public's perception of business, particularly at the 'big end of town'. Firms are seen by many in the community to have 'failed' many of their stakeholders. The media is full of stories about 'downsizing', pressure being applied to suppliers, environmental degradation, and destruction of shareholder value by highly paid directors and executives.

This cynical mood towards business has been captured in Trevor Sykes' satirical masterpiece, The Official History of Blue Sky Mines, a fictitious version of his Bold Riders if you wish. This company's principal activity is to defraud its shareholders and it uses every device imaginable to do so. In such circumstances its records could be an embarrassment if they were to fall into the wrong hands. The Foreword warns the reader that it has been difficult to write the history of the firm as its records, which are for the most part quite fraudulent, have been destroyed by fire on the numerous occasions when the firm was under official investigation.

The best-selling books about Australian business are those chronicling failure and disgrace. For the most part these are written by journalists whose books appear within months of a business' collapse. The materials come from the reports of liquidators, court documents or transcripts of commissions of inquiry rather than the firm's archives. In an environment where the principal question has become 'who's to blame', firms have become increasingly wary of allowing independent investigation of their internal documents. Firms seek sanctuary by either denying access or by insisting on a prescriptive 'commission' that effectively stifles the independence of the author.

There are many businesses out there, the overwhelming majority, who are not in the category of Blue Sky Mines. Can more of these good corporate citizens be persuaded to make over their business records? We should not underestimate the magnitude of the task. There are many impediments. The first is simply a communications gap. I suspect that very few business firms are aware of all the options open to them with respect to their records. Very few will be aware of the Cultural Gifts scheme. For them it's simply a matter of keeping records in-house until a lack of space and/or rising expense results in destruction. A further problem facing both the firms and ourselves as keen acquirers is the loss of 'corporate memory' within so many firms over the past 20 years. There are fewer people who have a good idea of were the records are as a result of the wave of mergers and acquisitions, recurrent downsizings, outsourcing, privatizing and the high rate of turnover of directors and CEOs. Moreover, the wide spread foreign ownership of so many businesses gives rise to an additional problem. Overseas parents or expatriate managers would not be expected to have a strong interest in Australian 'cultural heritage'. I recently enquired of the subsidiary of a giant US multinational whether any of the records of the two iconic Australian firms it had acquired two decades ago still existed. I was told that even if such records did exist, which my contact would not say, I would not be allowed access to them because that was company policy. I asked if I should take the matter up with people at head office. He just laughed. Not a promising sign.

Should we give way to despair? Let's imagine the worst case scenario where the level of funding for the archives in existence remains in a steady state and there are no new collections. Closure of any of the principal repositories is unthinkable. Under such circumstances can the nation's business heritage be preserved? To a degree, it could be. Authors are remarkably adaptive in the pursuit of their quarry. There are many alternative sources: newspapers, stock brokers' 'files', the transcripts of cases before wages boards and arbitration tribunals, hearings of the tariff board, and minutes of evidence in royal commissions and the like. Some of the most informative books written in last decade about Australian business have come from sources other than the archives. Bridget Griffen-Foley's books on the Packers are an excellent example of what can be done by exploiting a host of material other than the records of the firm under consideration. Of course, most of the business-related material already held in our archives has not yielded up its secrets to serious scholarship. There is a mountain of material still awaiting use.

On a more optimistic note, what can the Society and other interested parties do to help nurture the system that supports our business heritage? I offer some modest suggestions. The lack of profile of Australian business history compounds the problems facing us. More histories and better histories would raise awareness. Can we encourage scholars from other fields such as labour history, politics, or the law, that using business records could enrich their research? Should we be seeking funding to support authors as well as institutions? Could the Australian Research Council be persuaded to give priority to research in business history? Can academics be persuaded to have their research students undertake topics that turn them to work in the archives? Could the Australian Society of Archivists approach business associations or industry bodies seeking funding to support independent scholarship about industry-wide issues? Could industry groups be approached for quite modest amounts of funding to underwrite the costs of publication of research monographs, and to send young business historians abroad to attend conferences as a way of keeping them abreast of recent developments in the profession.

Would it help if the Society took upon itself the role of a 'broker' or intermediary that would arrange a match between potential 'donors' and repositories, and possibly authors? What is the profession going to offer to business? A one-page document outlining the tax effectiveness of the Cultural Gift program to every member of the Business Council of Australia might work wonders. Might we also look to private enterprise for help? Michael Piggott informs me that a 'History Factory' operates in the USA that offers a complete service to clients including storing and preserving records, retrieval and the provision of 'interpretation' services. I understand that Judith Ellis' Enterprise Knowledge company is the closest type of service locally. This is all to the good. The Canadian Hudson Bay Company expends between $150-200,000 annually for research through its Hudson's Bay History Foundation. The Australian mining industry, together with the support of both federal and state governments, raised a very large amount of money to establish the Australian Prospectors and Miners Hall of Fame museum in Western Australia. Such good practice should be applauded and held up as a model to other industry groups. A dialogue with potential donors and benefactors is the best place to start.


This is a revised version of an address given to a symposium entitled Where have all the archives gone? A symposium on the fate of business archives in the 21st century held at the Australian National University, 24th October 2003. I would like to thank Michael Piggott for his comments on an earlier draft.

top of page