History and evolution
In Italy, interest in business archives began to grow in the early 1970s; to be precise, in 1973, when the Records Administration organized a round table on industrial archives to discuss this important question. Previously, the most active bodies in archives preservation and valorization had been the historic banks, which possessed a remarkable documentary heritage. That first meeting took place thanks to the initiative of a group of economic historians, as well as some entrepreneurs and State archivists; and served to spearhead a new period of inquiry into the economic development of Italy. Indeed, the round table was a response to the many complaints that primary sources and records produced by the leaders themselves of industrial development were too few and too fragmentary.
The activities aimed at preserving such an important part of our national archival heritage had been quite rare. Within a few years of the round table, however, some Soprintendenze (bureau of cultural assets – archives department) started gathering information, mostly concerning private economic archives. It was soon clear that surveys were the right tool to start working on the existing records, because they could provide a primary essential understanding of the material to be preserved. The experience of those years has shown that surveys – by focusing either on geographic areas or business sectors – have gradually made a great deal of data available and, at the same time, accessible, even as original records.
It is also evident that survey results need regular updating, especially because companies frequently merge or incorporate. In several cases, when the results of a survey seemed doomed to lose their significance, the archival Administration would issue a declaration of great historical interest of the business archive at risk. On the other hand, a survey was sometimes the first step towards a broader more detailed finding aid, i.e. the guide, which describes records held by a specific body or by a network of similar bodies.
A few years after the advent of the first pioneering initiatives – for example, the Ansaldo Archive was created in 1980 – several companies set up their historical archives, and in 1994 an entire issue of the magazine “Rassegna degli Archivi di Stato” focused on the question of business archives in Italy.
The second half of 1980s and the early 1990s proved to be a fruitful period for business archives: in 1998 the first handbook of business archival science was published, and saw a rapidly increasing number of business archives opened and given public access. At the same time, several meetings and training activities were organized, partially as a result of the growing interest of ANAI (Italian Archival Association) . Recently, ANAI even created a specific national work team, GIAI, whose aim was to bring together business archives and archivists. This project did not fully succeed in its aims, but it was a first step towards a systematic approach and towards coordination between institutions and professionals, who often share the same problems within realities that are geographically or organizationally far apart.
The growing entrepreneurial attention to business culture and documentation is also evident in two further initiatives. Firstly, in 2001 the Company Museums and Archives Association was founded. It was first created as a work team aimed at valorizing the institutional role of the first company museums. Recently, the association’s goal has become to preserve and revalue historical company heritage. This means that the Association’s activity focuses on a company’s products, rather than on its records, which are complementary to the exposition.
Secondly, the 9th edition of “Business and Culture Prize” was awarded in 2004; its increasing importance demonstrates the evolution in relationships between business and culture. In the last few years, cultural investment has changed from traditional funding and sponsorship to a wider concept of a genuine cultural partnership. Business plans, finances, and carries out cultural projects, thereby proving that culture too is a flexible value. Company museums and archives are a classical example, and the amount of financial resources allocated to the preservation and valorization of historical and documentary heritage continues to grow.