Provenance the Web Magazine ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.1, No.2 - March 1996

Preserving Your Credit Union's Past: The case for archiving

Author - Guy Robertson

Bonnie and Clyde were notorious for their withdrawals, most of which they made at gun point. Though highly unpopular in banking circles, they are considered sympathetically by movie producers, song writers and business archivists.

Why would business archivist have any interest in them?

Because in 1934, at the height of their violent career, Clyde sent a letter to Ford Motors that is now carefully preserved in the archives. He said the company's vee-8 product was so good he stole one whenever possible.

Clyde's letter can't be beat. He had so many cars to choose from, yet he never sent such a letter to any of Ford's competitors. The letter has served as the focus of a corporate marketing campaign, proving the value of both product excellence, and of the practice of archiving.

Archives preserve the historical documents of organizations. Most commonly, the purpose is to maintain a record of the corporate culture, but while they share that purpose every archive is unique. Credit union archives can contain everything from board minutes to photos of the annual picnic, and every credit union is different. There are always people, products, activities and projects whose existence and progress should be documented for permanent reference. Series of letters, committee minutes, annual reports, notebooks, photos, brochures, budget statements and ledgers are the most common forms of archival documents in credit unions.

There are also legal reasons for credit unions to set up archives. By law, they are obliged to keep their corporate charter and seals for as long as they are in business.

It is also prudent to keep all leases, contracts, warranties and building plans in the archives, where they should be properly indexed and stored, so they can be found without delay. Many organizations have established archives only after they have lost a valuable document: they have no wish to repeat the long and fruitless search for a warranty without which they must pay a large bill.

Increasingly, credit unions are using their archives for marketing and community outreach purposes. In an age of economic uncertainty members feel a need for long-term stability, especially in their financial institutions. Archives show members that the credit union has survived tough times, and is strong enough to survive in the future.

Your credit union has probably made contributions to the culture of your community. Your loans help purchase and develop property. In provinces where credit unions sell insurance, they offer protection against serious losses. Credit unions support sports teams and other community groups. An archival exhibit inside or outside your offices will demonstrate to current and prospective members the breadth of your involvement in your community, and your determination to remain an essential partner in many important ventures.

A brief history of the credit union in the form of a booklet or a brochure can be distributed to viewers. Like Ford Motors, you can develop a marketing campaign based on those old files that have sat in a basement closet for so many years.

Where should you start?

Usually, it is best to appoint someone as corporate archivist. In a small credit union, a retired staff member or a former director might be happy to take on the job. In larger credit unions, the archivist is sometimes a senior clerk, a librarian, a records manager or a communications specialist. Whoever the archivist is, he or she should take time to learn the essentials of archival arrangement and description, conservation and storage. The Nation Archives in Ottawa can direct anyone interested to high-quality books, magazine articles and the kits on these topics. Provincial archivists in provincial capitals can also recommend worthwhile reading material, and are well informed about the regional histories.

Your archivist should begin by drafting basic polices regarding the purpose of the credit union's archival collection and its contents. Archival policies should be clear, concise and approved by senior management and the board.

It is important that the archives become an active part of your operations, and not a dump site for old paper nobody needs. Archival purposes are best expressed in a point-form mandate. The contents policy might include a list of items that must be included in the collection for legal purposes, and a list of items that are just useful or interesting: advertising materials, photos, scrapbooks, news clippings, trophies and other awards.

After the policies have been approved, the archivist will want to make an inventory of those items that are readily available and of obvious archival worth. Often, credit unions have boxes of materials on- and off- site that are already labelled archives. These should be carefully examined. Sometimes these are the records of organizations that have merged to constitute the credit union in its current form. For example, Pacific Coast Savings Credit Union in Victoria has resulted from the merger, over the years, of 17 different credit unions, with incorporations reaching back to 1940. To avoid confusion, it is essential to keep the documents of each merged credit union separate and distinct from the others. This practise is called respecting provenance. It is also necessary to keep documents in their original filing order, since that order reveals how the organization conducted its business.

The inventory will also include items that are recent and still of current interest. As soon as these items are inactive or outdated, they can be transferred to the archives for preservation and permanent retention. In an age of multi-media record keeping, archival preservation is a continuing challenge. Your archivist is faced with the problem of preserving tapes and disks that are fragile and easily damaged by the wrong environment; colour photos that will fade unless stored in a dark, cool place; and paper that contains so much acid it will yellow and crumble without proper treatment.

Archival items should be kept in a secure place, away from heat, direct light and moisture. Each item should be stored in an acid-free envelope or a box with an accurate label detailing the contents. Acid-free storage material retard decay and increase the chances of a fragile document's long-term survival. Those badly-damaged items that contain valuable historical data can be reproduced in a more stable medium. Old letters that are tattered and yellowing can be microfilmed. Negatives can be made from fading photos, and an interesting image can be rescued and computer enhanced to its original clarity. A provincial archives can direct you to local suppliers of acid-free materials, microfilming, and photographic reproduction.

If one of the main purposes of your archive is to support marketing and outreach to your membership, then your archivist should consider mounting an historical exhibit. Since exhibits are exposed to risks such as theft and adverse environmental conditions, it is unwise to display the original document. Copies are inexpensive to make and easier than originals to handle. It is sometimes impossible to replace an original, but in most cases a copy can be quickly duplicated.

An exhibit should have a theme such as "Our early history: how the credit union got started," or "Rink and diamond: a history of our sports teams." An early history exhibit might include photos of the original office and staff, samples of old forms and letterhead, examples of old logos, and maybe newspaper clippings about the credit union's role in the community. Sports exhibits are always popular, especially when the members see themselves in team shots. We all enjoy a little PR. particularly when we see ourselves younger, slimmer and up to bat.

Depending on the surface, panel or display module you use you can set it up in different locations. An early history exhibit can stand in any office or branch. It can travel to schools, covered mall areas and your annual meeting.

Be prepared to hear reactions from the public: everything from "It's great to see a picture of the old branch" to "I remember the time when the baseball team won nine games in a row."

You might also attract new members who like your community spirit and long-term service ethic. As long as your exhibit doesn't inspire a visit from the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, you'll be pleased will the results.

Guy Robertson, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

This article reprinted with the permission of CREDIT UNION WAY which is published by Credit Union Central of Saskatchewan for directors, employees and members of Canadian credit unions and co-operatives.

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Last update March 9, 1996