The dust from our move has mostly settled and our team has turned to new and old projects, from rehousing fragile Monsters, Inc. pastels to processing A Bug’s Life concept art. As I mentally prepare for the SAA Annual Meeting and craft my tentative schedule, I’ve been reflecting on why it is I chose to be a corporate archivist and some of the pros and cons of this particular brand of archives. During my last semester of grad school, I found myself in an archives class defending my interest in corporate archives. My path in the field led me through art galleries, public libraries, historical museums, non-profit community archives, and university archives, but I was especially drawn to corporate archives. Most of my peers were set on the more traditional university special collections route, and a few expressed interested in government archives, but I often felt like the lone representative of budding archivists for business settings.
As I’ve spent a little more time in the professional world, I’ve come to see that this is still true in organizations like SCA and SAA. Corporate archivists get a lot less airtime and publicity in our profession, whether it’s in the classroom or at a conference, partly due to the simple fact that there are less of us than there are of our university and government counterparts. Another factor is the inherent secrecy and confidentiality involved in working at a corporation. There is only so much an archivist can share about their work and the company’s history without treading into the dangerous territory of trade secrets and non-disclosure agreements.
I became an archivist because I love the way that artifacts and documents tell stories previously untold. For better or worse, corporations are crucial to the history of the United States. Their history is part of our heritage. Business archives present the opportunity to specialize in a particular narrative—how one company grew and made a difference in the history of a city, a region, a state, or a country. Archivists become experts in a small slice of history and often get the chance to do original research on behalf of clients. Doing the actual research (rather than directing someone to look in a particular box or collection) is part of the fun of our work, but it is also a requirement, since many departments and executives don’t have the time or inclination to dig for the answers. As a corporate support department, it can be very difficult to say no to a proposition or request, no matter how it strains our resources.
One of the great benefits of being part of the creating entity of our records is access to original creators. Pixar is a young enough company (going on 30 years) that many of the founding and early members are still alive and working at Pixar. When I run into questions while processing, such as identifying the subject or artist of a piece, I can easily snap a photo and email five different employees who probably have the answer. When I worked in a university special collections department I so often wanted to reach out to donors to ask them questions about their documents so that I could better understand the context, but that option was unavailable to me. Now I can satiate my curiosity with the click of a button.
I’m honored to be a part of a company that creates products that people love and respect. Hearing from friends that they found Finding Dory or Inside Out moving warms my heart. But being part of the creating entity also brings up questions of responsibility and loyalty to both our organization and our materials. As representatives of a company, archivists have to be aware of brand management and heritage marketing, a use of the archives that universities rarely engage in. As employees we have a responsibility to protect our company’s image, as well as the rarity and uniqueness of our materials. Recently we have found ourselves monitoring the internal and external uses of our artwork and asking whether something is appropriate for our company. While we don’t necessarily want to be the ones responsible for making all of those decisions, we feel a duty to bring up the question out of loyalty to our art, respect for our traveling exhibitions, and a desire to support the Pixar brand.
Advocacy is a hot topic for archivists no matter their particular setting, but it takes on a new meaning for corporate archives. We are frequently advocating for what we do and evangelizing about the value of archives to our coworkers. Many times that means explaining to our stakeholders and decision makers what exactly an archive is and how it benefits various departments both to give their materials to us and to use our resources. Though I have no experience as a professional archivist in a university setting, I imagine that advocacy there does not require quite as much basic education since most universities intrinsically understand the educational value of archives. The fight there might be more a fight for the right budget and headcount to accomplish work, rather than the fight to exist in the first place. Of course, explaining the value of an organization’s archives is not limited to for-profit companies. Any archives that is not in an educational setting, including non-profit organizations and religious institutions, faces this challenge of justifying their existence and explaining their worth. At Pixar we’re lucky to be a part of a company that values its legacy and the inspirational value of its records, but that is not the case for every company.
As I map out my SAA schedule, I’m most looking forward to the Business Archives Colloquium (besides for hobnobbing with all of you fine folks). It’ll be a busy week, but one full of my favorite things—archives geekery, amazing food, and archivists! See you in Atlanta!