Mining Your Company’s History: Where to Begin

CorporateHistory.net president Marian Calabro researching primary sources for a foundation client (photo by Christine Reynolds)

“Help! Where do we start? We’ve been tasked with doing our company’s history or updating our About Us webpage, but we don’t have organized records or archives or much of anything!” At CorporateHistory.net we’ve heard this lament more than once. The good news is that you have more material than you think. Think of it as a historian would. You need primary sources, which provide authenticity, and secondary sources, which provide objectivity. A sound history has a healthy balance.

How to put this “something from nothing” into practice? Consider COVID-19 time. Your primary sources will document what it was like to do business during and (we hope) after the pandemic. Your secondary sources will reflect the affects on your industry, the overall recovery period, and other salient facts.

Examples of primary sources, which can be defined as anything created at the time under study: oral history interview transcripts with those who participated in the history or witnessed it (but be sure to double-check dates and names!), annual reports, board meeting minutes, conference programs, financial records, HR manuals, laboratory research findings, newsletters, litigation records, memos, photos, speeches by founders and subsequent executives, and other first-hand materials. Remember the artifacts: changes in logos (and logo wear), business cards, and even holiday gifts can reveal much about an organization’s culture. And don’t forget physical places: they can provide key information through observation. (When our founder wrote the history of the company that built and occupied the world’s only two-sided building, she spent time there to see how it felt to work in such a space.) And finally, reach out to pack rats. Every organization has at least one! You’d be surprised what some retirees may have held onto. (Check out one example here.)

Secondary sources—defined as anything that cites, comments on, or extends primary sources—are one step removed from the original action (sometime several steps). They may include analysts’ reports, business case studies, media coverage (especially trade magazine articles and industry reports), product reviews, or virtually anything that evaluated the activities of your company and industry. Some companies forego secondary sources altogether, for reasons of too little research time, too few pages in the publication-in-progress, or too few minutes in the video. You still need to work around such limitations. Without secondary sources, your history may seem insular and not wholly credible.

This exercise may take months. And it may persuade you to call in a professional archivist, in which case the Society of American Archivists’ consultants directory is the place to begin.