Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Archiving Family Memorabilia: Contributing to Business History

This is an edited version of the text of my introductory remarks for a panel discussion on: “Profit from the Past: The Power of Family and Business Archiving”, held on August 9, 2016 at Mumbai, organised by Asset Vantage.
As a student of development administration since 1965, I have documented the processes of change – in societies, organisations and individuals – and analysed the factors that influence these processes. In these endeavours, I have dealt with archives – good bad and indifferent – at academic institutions, business organisations, government, non-profit organisations, and families.

After half a century of research experience, I have come to the conclusion that we Indians have little sense of history, even though we have such a rich and long tradition as a society and culture. I find this trait especially inexplicable, since I come from Rajasthan – a land where families and dynasties employed charans and bhaats to compile and narrate their histories. This trait of ours has especially affected the subject of business history.

I am sure all of us have a wealth of memories which we consider far more valuable than all the other wealth that we may have made in our lifetime. And it is a wealth we are ever willing to share with our dear ones. What this wealth of memories is to individuals, archives are to institutions and organisations. They are the non-capitalised wealth of organisations. They provide evidence on which narratives are based. They comprise objects and materials that represent events, people and developments in the journey of an organisation.

But without getting into too much academic discourse about the discipline of archiving, let us briefly understand what the word archives refer to.

As a noun, an archive refers to a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, an institution, or a group of people. Constituents of the noun archive could be: documents, letters, personal diaries, ledgers, photographs, audio recordings, videos, artefacts, and digital materials on social media, etc.

As a verb, archiving refers to the task of placing or storing something in an organised collection. Constituents of the verb archiving include: creation of archives, which comprises a) Selection process; and b) Identification of the information content of the resource. It then covers organising, storage and preservation of those resources and developing a retrieval or search system. Those whose work is described by the verb are, today, a highly specialised profession.

Most people or organisations want to document their biographies/histories for specific events – when they reach important milestones. So the exercise is always event-led or event-based. When I was in the corporate world, I have dealt with a ‘brochure’ that was published at the end of a decade of operations, and a book while celebrating the silver jubilee of the organisation. Two of the biographies I have worked on were published to mark the birth centenary of individuals.

The first task is, of course, sifting through the materials. The task is generally so humongous and so time-consuming that most people want to postpone it. In organisations, it is so thankless a task that no one, other than perhaps the librarian, is assigned the function. And, unless the person has an interest in history, he or she does the task rather grudgingly. But one realises the importance of such a collection only when one wants to write a history or a biography. Without such resources, these publications turn out to be just brochures and the biographies are just hagiographies! I have had to turn down several such assignments because there was a lack or archival materials to build a narrative based on facts — not just hearsay.

I will not go into the details of ‘how’ to archive because that is not my specialisation. But, as a social historian, I would like to emphasise that, unless you create the archives for your family or organisation, you are obliterating a part of our history. I firmly believe that all of us are living through such fascinating times, that if we do not document our experiences and store them in a way that the future generations may have access to them, and learn from them, we are not doing justice to ourselves as well as to the next generation. And, while technology has made letters and other forms of written documentation almost obsolete, it offers so many easy methods to create, to store, to retrieve and to share, that we have just no excuse for not performing this task.

I have shared some of experiences — of using archives and creating narratives from archival objects by way of examples. These are: Institutional Archives; Interpreting Archival Resources; Enhancing Family ArchivesThe Brick that Launched HDFC; Family Archiving: Dr LM Sanghvi and the Duncan Medal. All the examples illustrate the availability of an archival resource and how a social historian puts the information content of that resource in its context by researching on that content.

Some of the books showcased demonstrate the way a historian draws information from, say, letters —about the life and living conditions of that period. These books also bring to life how archival materials can be used as design elements.

The topic of oral history has acquired special importance in the current times as we seem to have moved away from committing our thoughts to pen and paper and rely more and more on oral communication. The importance of recorded interviews was poignantly brought out by Voices from the Inner Courtyard – the biography of Leela Somani. For writing the book, I had recorded my interviews with her husband and her daughter-in-law both of whom passed away a few years after the book was released. Those oral history records have become an invaluable part of the family’s archives today.

If you are hesitant about sharing your experiences by putting your thoughts on paper, please create oral histories by keeping audio-recorded personal diaries. Technology enables you to protect your privacy and to preserve these records. Imagine how much you would be contributing to the discipline of business history of this country.

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