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Industry discovers in the archives a tool for corporate decisionmaking

In preparation for his first trip to China 10 years ago, David Rockefeller reportedly asked one of his assistants at Chase Manhattan Bank to bring him all the information in the bank archives that pertained to that institution's previous relationship with China.

Within minutes the assistant returned - empty-handed.

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''The story goes that Mr. Rockefeller was rather dismayed to find that we didn't have an archives,'' says Anne Van Camp, a second vice-president at Chase Manhattan and the bank's archivist for the past five years. ''His reaction was the impetus that was needed to begin identifying and collecting old records, and within two years a professional archivist had been hired to put an official program into shape.''

Today Chase Manhattan not only has one of the most extensive banking archives in the United States, but also maintains an active Archives Council, composed of a number of senior officers who meet regularly to identify information that's currently being generated and that likely will be of use in the future.

''People in business don't tend to keep things very long,'' Ms. Van Camp notes, ''so we're working on collecting strategies within the bank all the time.''

Although the resources of the Rockefeller family are unique, in several significant ways Chase Manhattan's archival collection is representative of the estimated 150 business archives in the US today. Most, like Chase Manhattan, are found in thriving corporations: Of the top 100 firms ranked by sales in the Fortune 500 list, 17 have corporate archives. Most came into being in the 1970s, when bicentennial celebrations and history graduates were descending on the country.

But there the similarities end. Business archives are as diverse and sometimes as quirky as American businesses. A directory published by the Society of American Archivists in 1980, the most recent to date, lists companies that sell cameras and cranberries, automobiles and newspapers.

It's estimated that the combined business archives in the United States hold less than 3 percent of all corporate records. These collections range in size from the contents of one file cabinet to several thousand linear feet of records. They predictably contain minutes of board meetings and presidents' papers and, more surprisingly, include oral histories, blueprints, archaeological reports, and even fine porcelain and ivory. Some archives employ as many as six full-time professionals, and others have only one part-time staffer.

Numbers aside, companies with the strongest archive programs have developed the most inventive ways of using them. Wells Fargo, for example, uses its rich collection of American folklore artifacts as a powerful marketing and advertising tool to keep the company's colorful name prospering. A corporate history commissioned in 1977 by Citibank has become part of that institution's 10-year planning effort, with archival materials used to help identify patterns of success and failure in decisionmaking, as well as changing styles of leadership.

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''The fact that the Citibank history is being used to help chart directions for the future, and the fact that it will be published by a major university press this year is an indication of the potential value of business archives,'' says Deborah Gardner, archivist for the New York Stock Exchange. ''While some executives initially have set up archival programs because they saw them as a public relations device that would help to enhance the corporate image, they often have eventually come to see the programs as valuable internal research centers.''

There is a difference between the archives and public relations departments of the stock exchange, Dr. Gardner explains.

''The public relations department is interested in the current moment, in promoting the exchange as it is now. Anything that has to do with history, they pass on to us.

''We also get a lot of outside users coming in to look at our records,'' she continues. ''Not long ago we had the author of a biography of Bernard Baruch doing research in our files, trying to get a sense of what it was like to be a member of the stock exchange in the early part of the century, when Baruch was active.

''We also get a lot of questions about 1929, which is not a year we're terribly interested in celebrating.''

Dr. Gardner, whose doctoral dissertation from Columbia University is titled ''The Architecture of Commercial Capitalism,'' is perhaps typical of today's business archivists, most of whom either have advanced training in humanities or experience in library science or records management. She says she happened to walk into the stock exchange, looking for materials for her studies in urban history, at a time when the exchange happened to be looking for someone to begin an archives program.

According to the archivists, the 52 percent increase in the number of business archives founded between 1969 and 1980 only adds to the growing recognition of corporate history as a unique - and profitable - asset.

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