Brown Shoes in a World of Tuxedos: Corporate Archives and the Archival Profession[1]


by Bruce H. Bruemmer[2]



Twenty years ago, when I was working as a manuscripts curator at the University of Minnesota, there was a street person who would hang around the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge yelling obscenities at the students who passed by.  They couldn't avoid the encounter, since this was the only way connecting both campuses, so the students endeavored to give this person wide berth if they could.  A decade later I was still at the university, and was returning from a frustrating and gruesome review of the bibliographic control in one of the archival units.  The situation seemed hopeless, and I was disturbed in my deep thought as I walked across the Washington Ave. bridge.  I was so engrossed in my frustration that I didn't realize that I was muttering obscenities under my breadth.  When I looked up, I saw that students were giving me the same wide berth as that street person a decade earlier.  This was the moment I decided that, perhaps, it was time to change jobs.


Archives in the private sector had always fascinated me.  While at the University, I was successful in acquiring the records of the Control Data as well as Burroughs corporations.  The fact that both of those collections had been developed by bonafide corporate archivists before imploding and coming to the Babbage Institute should have given me pause, but in spite that omen I decided to apply for an opening at Cargill.  Shortly after the Y2K crises failed to bring about the end of the world, I shaved off my beard and became a corporate archivist.


In one instant I had snipped 16 years of baggage behind me, and I was back in the archives, fixing other people's messes.  After some time, friends would ask me about my new job.  Here's my line: At the university, people who think they have power often don't have much power at all.  At Cargill, the people who think they have power, generally do have power.  While it doesn't mean that the people at Cargill are necessarily any smarter than the people at the university, for me it clears up a whole lot of ambiguity.  At a land grant university, nearly everyone is a client, and even if no one understands the purpose of an archives, there are enough supporters to defend it or make it flourish. The clientčle in a corporation is narrowly defined, and it has little patience in trying to understand what an archives can provide.  At Cargill, I got the feeling (to steal a line from George Gobel) that the world was a tuxedo and I was a pair of brown shoes. As I became more familiar with the work of other archival kindred spirits in different companies, I realize that this angst was not mine alone.  Those who are successful in a corporate setting are, as Phil Mooney of The Coca-Cola Company described, “aggressive self-promoters, seeking every opportunity to sell the use of the archival record for business enhancement.”[3]


Even before my transmogrification into a corporate archivist, I use to hang with the Business Archives Section of SAA.  I noted that some in the section had a chip on their shoulder, always underscoring the differences between the corporate and public sectors.  Their expressions ranged from mild annoyance that corporate needs have not been addressed, to calls for a divorce from the SAA.  While many ridicule the idea of a separation from the national professional group, there is the example of the 1974 formation of the National Association of State Archives and Records Administrators by government archivists over some of the same issues (NASARA is now NAGARA, the group with which we are meeting jointly for the first time in over 30 years).  In explaining the schism, Bruce Dearstyne noted that SAA and ARMA didn't offer a forum for the discussion of both archives and records management, and the government archivists “believed that their programs, because of their setting in state governments, had a commonality with each other but also traits that made them different from other archives programs.” Although business archivists generally speak the same language as their colleagues, there is dissatisfaction with the application of professional tools in nearly every function of archives.  As one successful corporate archivist offered recently in frustration, “We process differently, we interact with clients differently, we budget differently, we have uniquely different resources to draw on, our governance laws are different, our hiring practices and promotion policies are different, our user base is different, our organization structures are different, ... our access policies are different, our museums are different, and the skills we look for in an archivist are different.”[4]


Are there true intellectual gulfs between archives in different sectors, or is the difference one of emphasis?  Once I entered the private sector, the dissimilarities between academic and business approaches became painfully clear in a number of fundamental areas.  In a forthcoming article, I find unique attributes in six areas, including processing and description, appraisal, the archives relation to history, and the hostile environment in which corporate archives exists.  Here, I have time to discuss two.



First, The Mission


While no archives is likely to survive by ignoring the mission of its parent organization, in the public sector these organizational objectives are sufficiently broad to support a wide range of activities: scholarly research, general public interest, and public access to government information.  Ultimately, these archives are responsible to the public, the university community, and/or taxpayers.


To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the chief business of American corporate archives is business.  Ultimately, corporate archives are responsible to the shareholders, and the primary interest of shareholders is to increase their investment.  While shareholders value other aspects of a corporation (community involvement, environmental responsibility, and charitable giving), their first priority is financial.  A corporate archives can justify its existence from a number of perspectives, but its survivability is much more assured if it can contribute to the bottom line. More and more corporate archives are expected to fulfill these objectives. In the 1990s, the AT&T archives existed completely through revenues generated by “charge backs” for services.  The Coca-Cola Company archives claims a major role in a multi-million dollar legacy trademark business.  Many corporate archives, such as Cargill’s, participate in annual service level agreements where business units are asked to pay a sum based on their prior year's use of services and products.  How many public archives are asked to justify their programs in such terms?


These examples are efforts by archives to demonstrate their value to business in the language of business. Indeed, corporate archivists have criticized the ability of archivists to effectively communicate the value of archives in terms that would be more meaningful to those who fund archival programs.  In many respects the traditional perspective of the archival profession is a non-starter for programs in the corporate setting.  Gordon Rabchuk notes that “the typical understanding of archives in business has carried too many negative connotations, largely because we have sold an obsolete product that has demonstrated little, if any connection with the dynamics of modern business.”[5]  Perhaps in a perfect world, some business executives really do look at the past to learn from it, in spite of the quarter-to-quarter time frame of most American businesses. In any case, a presentation about the strategic past doesn't happen without an incredibly entrepreneurial and savvy archivist who is used to taking some risks.


Maybe most public archivists are simply uncomfortable with the mission of corporate archives.  In his analysis of why religious archives seem to march to a different drummer than the rest of the profession, Jim O'Toole comments on the tension in America between religion and state, and how that tension plays out in the archival profession.  He writes, “Given the understanding of religion as a private matter, restricted to a limited sphere of personal activity, the association of an archives with a particular religious group is at best somewhat anomalous and at worst suspicious.”  While comparing corporate and religious archives may seem unholy, both raise the question of loyalties and allegiances.  Are there moments when archival professionalism is at cross purposes with a capitalist business?  And how does the rest of the profession regard this tension? In his analysis of professionalism, Richard Cox points to institutionalized altruism.  He defines this attribute as archivists' “long standing desire to make historical records accessible to the public.”  This puts corporate and religious archivists, and any other archivists who maintain records inaccessible to the public, in a bit of a professional bind.[6] To me, nothing is ever permanently closed; documents have a way of outliving their creators, even if it’s a corporat\ion. But I know many colleagues can't stand it when I say, “Access? Not in your lifetime.”


Second, Greater Good


Perhaps the most prominent issue that separates corporate archives from the rest of the profession is the perception that the corporate archivist does not work for the greater good of society.  This was most recently articulated with debate over the fetching Sun Mad Raisin cover of the American Archivist.  A number of corporate archivists (myself included) wrote a letter objecting to the overtly anti-business tone on the cover.  Yes, the poster was in context of one of an articles, but the cover itself was in the context of wherever the American Archivist sat.  Those who worked in a business setting almost felt compelled to hide the American Archivist within the covers of Milling and Baking News. Never before had the publication used such a negative depiction of any sector on its cover.  And to what end?  Sell more journals?


The corporate archivists felt that they had enough trouble advocating archives within a capitalist organization without the American Archivist looking like Mother Jones. This was a case of basic salesmanship, not censorship. Others felt that the cover was proper in the context of the content, and corporate archivists were, at best, thin skinned, or at worst, tampering with the editorial freedom of the journal.  Richard Cox ramped up the discussion in a surprising direction when he directly questioned the professional ethics of all archival professionals working within corporations. “What intrigues me,” he wrote in a letter to the editor, “is how the individual functioning as an archivist or records manager can work in the corporate environment in any realistic way, adhering to any sense of professional ethics or mission.”  He further elaborates by asking about the roles of records managers for tobacco companies, or the corporate archivists' response to the discovery of “illegal or questionable activity on the part of their employers.”  Cox then dismisses the whole focus on the cover as a tempest in a teapot. “Why the Society should be overly concerned about the use of a particular political poster is, in my opinion, way off base from the kinds of concerns we, as a profession, ought to be addressing.”


No doubt Cox would also diagnose appendicitis as just another bellyache.  The reality is that “Raisingate” (a term coined by outgoing SAA President Tim Ericson) was symptomatic of the differing perceptions of private and public sector archivists towards each other.  When the cover came out, most corporate archivists looked at it and wondered if there was a Sun Maid Raisin archivist in the SAA and whether we had just lost a member.  Their second thought was how long would it be until the journal chose to run a graphic critical of any of their employers.  Most other archivists probably sided with Philip Ashdown, who wrote a letter to the editor referring to the corporate archivists critical of the cover not as colleagues, but a “phalanx of corporate spokespeople.” He praised the use of controversial art for covers, urging the archival profession towards “the impartial preservation of our documentary heritage.”  For me, with five years of archival employment in the private sector and twenty years in the public, Raisingate convinced me that there was an issue with other archivists about the mission of the corporate archives and its contribution to the greater good of society.


While there is an ethical statement on “respecting each institution and its mission,” there is no professional ethical statement that outlines one's societal responsibilities. The Canadian code states that the work of archivists is for “the benefit of present users and future generations.”  Few corporate archivists would quibble with that sentiment if the present users are defined as the employees, customers, and communities of the business.  But if the current user can only be defined as the general public, does that immediately demote archival professionals to “spokespeople?”


The perceived greater good provided by archives is not limited to public accessibility, but includes public protection.  Cox questions, “What is the archivist to do ... when he or she discovers illegal or questionable activity on the part of their employers?”  The implication of this question sets up intractable conflicts for corporate archivists.  First, there is the obvious question that Cox wants to raise, namely, the loyalty of the archivist to the firm versus the public.  Second, there is simply the issue of knowledge and ability to identify illegal activities.  There are few archivists who are also accountants and lawyers.  How then are corporate archivists to insert themselves as whistle blowers, and is this role critical to being a professional archivist?  SAA's code of ethics is laughable to this point, noting that “archivists must uphold all federal, state, and local laws.”[7]  Take care jaywalking  across Connecticut Ave.!  Could an archivist have saved the world from the harm of an Enron?  No.  If public protection is the quality that makes a corporate archivist unethical, then even academic archivists might do well to shift uncomfortably in their seats.


Is the Business Archives Section really the Whiner's Rountable, or do they have a credible beef with the profession?  Apart from how we got to this state, I am concerned when I hear well-regarded corporate archivists look at the largest professional group in North America and remark, “There's nothing there for me.”


While corporate archivists are nowhere near as large a group as state and local government archivists, their grievances are similar to those described by Dearstyne. They have enough reasons to be disengaged. The critical issue is one of professional intent.  If other archivists truly feel that the work of corporate colleagues falls outside [QUOTE] the identification, preservation, and use of the nation's historical record [ENDQUOTE], then perhaps it is time to declare independence.  This would be a shame.  Rather than shills and spokespeople, corporate archivists are on the front line documenting the record of the nation.  There are business collections available in public repositories, but nothing compares to the documentary view from the inside.  And those documentary views are increasingly rare and precious.  Yes, much of this record is not available to the public, but as a profession associated with the events of the past, one would think that archivists could take a long-term view.


I'll leave you with one last thought: corporate archivists are in an internal struggle to demonstrate that their existence does not equate to increased risk to the company.  Although some corporate archives are within the law department, many are not, and are viewed cautiously, even suspiciously, by legal counsel.  Archivists argue that evidence is a two-edge sword; while records can harbor a smoking gun they can also be used in defending the corporation.  There is no better example than the Ford Motor Company's transparency in addressing allegations that Ford's American headquarters benefited from Ford-Werke's operation in wartime Nazi Germany.  Ford threw open its papers and appointed an investigative team.  Simon Reich, independent consultant to the effort, found “no complicity on the part of Ford's Dearborn management,”  and added that the study was a “credible example of a company accepting and implementing the code of “corporate social responsibility” regarding a most delicate issue.”[8]


Other examples that are not so reassuring.  In 2002, the city of Chicago passed an ordinance requiring companies wishing to do business with the city to “disclose any association with African-American slave trading in their company's past.”[9]  JPMorgan Chase discovered slaves listed as collateral in defaulted loans of two of its predecessor banks in Louisiana. The company issued a disclosure and an apology for its links to slavery in 2004, although litigation surrounding the disclosure may not be over. Regardless of one's feelings on reparations, the likely effect on collecting good historical records on acquisitions is chilling.  Corporate archivists face huge difficulties being at the right place at the right time during an acquisition.  We are often the only advocates for their preseravation.  If society punishes corporations for preserving the records of an acquisition, then documents key to understanding the ugliness and beauty of the past will disappear. For every vindication such as Ford's, there are real risks in maintaining archives for others.  Which scenario will the corporate lawyers remember?


This goes back to the heart of Raisingate. I view the Sun Mad cover as an unnecessary act by the American Archivist in an environment where corporations need very little help associating archives with an unnecessary risk.  One could argue that the existence of an archives is a positive indication of corporate social responsibility, going beyond mere compliance and taking calculated risk in a society generally suspicious of big business. While Cox throws public accountability at the feet of corporate archivists and records managers, he does not draw the distinction between accountability and responsibility.  Michael Moss, in reacting to the Sun Mad Raisin cover, claims this territory, noting the effect of the “the audit culture” in which institutions are required to keep records prescribed by audit requirement, but not necessarily having anything to do with collective memory.  While Moss finds the Sun Mad figure a metaphor for a record in a corporate audit culture, he accurately extrapolates its effect into the public sector. “Public authorities are no less exempt from seeking to contain liability or, to put it in Derrida's language, to forget,” writes Moss, citing Vern Harris' attack on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Archivists in the public sector should take note; this tension between accountability, responsibility, service to your employer, and service to the public good will eventually visit you.


As corporate archivists look creatively for ways to add value to their employer, they are aware of this tension.  Most have surrounded their archives with valuable tools and programs to protect the archives.  The danger is in forgetting the core, or drifting too far from it.  “Compliance” is a powerful tool for archivists to employ in the records management part of their operations, but it is a tool with some danger because compliance may not circumscribe those records that actually describe what happened;  accountability versus responsibility.  This is the discussion that all archivists need to have; it is a complex one that must be addressed with some sophistication. But the game of “who is the purest professional in the land” is derailing this discourse.  In his SAA presidential address, William Maher attempted to express a core that defines the confederation of professional archivists, looking to the authentic record as an item that we all have in common.  Unfortunately at the same time he went after the entertainment industry, which many corporate archivists interpreted (erroneously, I believe) as an attack on business archives.  So it also goes with our poor raisin maiden. The editor of the American Archivist thought it was a compelling cover. The corporate archivists interpreted the cover as an advocacy affront. Ashdown interpreted their letter as censorship, and Cox used it to question their ethics. Moss used that question to wonder about the record in an audit culture. And now we are into some significant issues, if anyone is left listening.


At stake is the vision of the most comprehensive documentation of our society.  I can't imagine trying to do this while alienating those few archivists preserving heritage within a modern corporation.  These are exciting organizations, full of smart and effective people, capable of great and some ignoble things.  Their influence on society is without equal. But justifying archives where the bottom line is measured quarterly will always be a tough sell; no doubt corporate archivists will remain brown shoes in the world of corporate tuxedos.  As corporate archivists look to a forum of archival ideas for help and creativity, I hope our brown shoes aren't out of place here, as well.


© 2006 Bruce H. Bruemmer

[1]  This paper was presented at the 2006 joint annual conference of the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators (NAGARA), the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Washington, D.C.  It is a pre-publication, abbreviated  version of a chapter that will appear in Documenting Society and Institutions, Essays in Honor of Helen Samuels, Terry Cook, editor, planned for publication in 2007.           

[2]  Bruce Bruemmer is the Director, Corporate Archives at  Cargill, Inc., an international provider of food, agricultural and risk management products and services that is headquartered in Minneapolis, MN. He has worked as an archivist in government, academia, and business for over twenty-five years and is a fellow of the Society of American Archivists.

[3]  Gord Rabchuk, “Life After the “Big Bang”: Business Archives in the Era of Disorder” in American Archivist 60:1 (Winter 1997) p 39.  Phillip F. Mooney, “Archival Mythology and Corporate Reality: A Potential Powder Keg” in James M. O'Toole (ed.) The Records of American Business (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1997) p 62 .

[4]  Email from Edward Rider to the Corporate Archives Forum, January 25, 2006.  Used with permission.

[5]  Rabchuk,  41.

[6]  James O'Toole, “What's Different about Religious Archives?” Midwestern Archivist 9:2 (1984) 99.  Richard J. Cox “Professionalism and Archivists” American Archivist 49:3 (Summer 1986) 223.

[7]  Under point IX, “Law” in Code of Ethics for Archivists, Society of American Archivists 2005 .  Interestingly, my employer, Cargill, requires me to sign an annual statement of Guiding Principles, which includes a pledge that the company “will comply with the laws of all countries to which it is subject.”  How many academic or government archivists must sign a similar statement?

[8]  Simon Reich Ford's Research Efforts in Assessing the Activities of its Subsidiary in Nazi Germany (Dearborn: The Ford Motor Company, 2001) 7-8.

[9]  Jonathan Swisher, Chicago's Belated Fight Against Slavery,” in Northwestern Chronicle, posted 24 October 2002 ().