On May 11-12, 2017, the St. Louis Fed co-hosted a conference with the European Association for Banking and Financial History (eabh): Innovative Solutions for Archives and Financial Crises: Bringing Archivists and Financial Historians Together.
Or, as one presenter put it, bringing together the “suppliers” and the “demanders” of archival materials.
The conference was organized to provide both archivists and financial historians the opportunity to learn from each other. The first day of the conference featured presentations by archivists on innovations in archival work and highlights from their collections. The second day featured presentations by financial historians on their research based on archival materials. Throughout the conference, two main themes emerged.
Theme 1: New Perspectives
Incorporating other fields into history. When doing historical research, it can be helpful to look at the situation from other perspectives. For example, when looking for the trigger of a crisis, expand your search beyond just economic conditions to consider how other fields could reveal things (e.g., incorporate psychology to look for signs of pessimism in newspapers).
Archival materials provide more details. There was discussion of the usefulness of microdata to find new patterns that aren’t apparent in the published summary data and reports. The concept applies to more than just data. To paraphrase one conference participant: The final documents that are available don’t reflect the full discussion that is available in the archives.
More data become available over time. Those familiar with economic data understand that they are revised, and the first report is only a sliver of the whole picture. It takes a long time to accumulate the data and see the whole story. As an example, keynote speaker Harold James told a story of how research based on archives made available many years after the fact dramatically changed and improved our understanding of the U.K. financial crisis of 1931.
Using context to fill in gaps. Some presentations discussed transcribing archival materials, such as letters, oral histories, and even tables of data. A common difficulty with these transcriptions is that, at times, words or numbers may be unintelligible due to handwriting, accent, or other factors. Looking at the materials with a wider lens can help fill in these gaps. With letters and oral histories, the surrounding text can be used to help figure out the unintelligible word. With tables of data, a total row at the bottom of a table can be compared with the sum of the data above to cross-check for accuracy and fill in any numbers that couldn’t be identified.
A call to action: Keep encouraging the next generation of researchers to use physical archives, not just the portions that have been digitized and put online.
Theme 2: Broadening Availability
Another theme of the presentations and informal conversations that occurred during the conference was the importance of, and methods for, making archival materials more widely accessible. These discussions brought up several questions:
- What makes something “archival?”
- If we make materials readily available, are they still “archival”?
- If materials aren’t formally deposited with “the archives” can they still be “archival”?
To save you the trouble of wandering down this rabbit hole, here’s a quick definition:
n.~ Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs that are preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator.
So, corporate records can be “archival” even if they aren’t formally deposited in the corporation’s “archives.” And archival materials that become widely published can still be considered “archives.”
With that context in mind, here are some ways of broadening the availability of archival materials.
Finding aids. The first step in broadening availability is letting researchers know what exists. Some institutions, such as The World Bank Group Archives, have public catalogs or finding aids, but some do not. Others have only some materials cataloged.
Access policies. The next step is allowing researchers to access those materials, even if under strict conditions. Often, requests for access get lost in a legal black hole. More work can be done by many organizations in developing clear policies and criteria for requesting and granting (or denying) access to materials along with rules for usage.
Digitization. This may be divided into two categories: digitization for internal access and digitization for public access. For some items, it might not be appropriate to allow public access. It still may be useful to digitize these items for internal access, however, so researchers can work with the materials and the institution can retain control over what is accessed and how it is used.
Transcription. In this context, transcription is a subset of digitization—converting images or audio to machine-readable text. Optical character recognition (OCR) software offers an automated method for accomplishing this, but the technology is still evolving and not able to accurately detect some materials, such has handwriting. For this, manual transcription may be appropriate.
Depositing data. When you compile a dataset, consider sharing it publicly (if there are no copyright or confidentiality restrictions). Your institution may offer a platform for doing this, or you can look at other platforms, such as ICPSR or FRED.
Bringing Archivists and Financial Historians Together
The conference was a great success in bringing archivists and financial historians together. Attendees commented that they appreciated and benefited from this event and conversations with their fellow attendees.