AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXI, No. 2, Fall 1999

 

Freeing the Wild Ducks: IBM's Commitment to the Historical Record
By Paul C. Lasewicz

One of IBM’s most cherished cultural icons is the wild duck— symbolic of the internal struggle in successful technology companies to meld the sometimes chaotic characteristics of the creative process with the market-driven structure of a for-profit enterprise. A similar if slightly skewed wild duck analogy can be applied to IBM’s efforts to preserve its historical records. Sometimes— like the beauty of a duck in flight— the company’s Archives has been celebrated. Other times, like a duck in a shooting gallery, it has been targeted for restructuring. Today the IBM Corporate Archives is flying high once again, flourishing in the light of the company’s impressive, even historic, resurgence.

IBM's ASDD Lab
Exterior View, Advanced Systems
Development Division (ASDD)
Laboratory Annex, Oasis Motel,
Monterey Road, San Jose, California. Two Floors and 24 motel units have been converted into offices and laboratories.
Photo courtesy of IBM Corporate Archives.
(please click on photo for larger version.)

The IBM Archives formally began in 1964 when the company hired a single archivist to manage its historical records, a collection which dated back to the turn of the century. A 1968 report on the preservation of the company’s historical legacy by a business historian sparked a series of developments that led to the creation of a formal Archives department in the early 1970s. This busy shop of eight staffers energetically waded into the arrangement and description of the sizable collection, making significant preservation headway and improving access to the collection.

Over the next 20 years the Archives experienced fluctuating headcounts and frequent relocations. During the tough business climate of the early 1990s, for example, the Archives staff was reduced significantly, the bulk of the collection was moved to an offsite warehouse, and basic archival processes such as collecting and processing slowed considerably. Not surprisingly, the visibility of the department waned as a result. As IBM returns to a position of industry leadership, the Archives is regaining its luster. Last year the company made a significant commitment to preserve its historical records and make some of them available for research.

As a first step in meeting this commitment, the Archives staff is focusing on improving physical and intellectual control over a multi-media collection consisting of 10,000 linear feet of paper-based records, 300,000 still images, over 5,000 moving image titles, and more than 2,000 business machines and components. Significant existing collections include the papers of IBM researchers, internal publications such as IBM technical reports and customer engineering manuals, and of course, the requisite volumes of product documentation. In addition, plans are underway to more closely align the Archives with the existing records management processes, to better document prominent researchers and research projects.

IBM's Voice Recognition Lab, ASDD Laboratory Annex
Voice Recognition Laboratory,
ASDD Laboratory Annex, Oasis
Motel, San Jose, CA.
(please click on photo for larger version.)

As the Archives forges ahead on the collecting front, it is making similar progress on the access front. The keystone of future access to the collection is an internet-mounted Corporate Archives Web site, currently under development and tentatively slated for an April rollout. While its final design has not yet been determined, future visitors to the site will likely be able to access folder-level descriptions of processed IBM archival records, summary materials, and a limited number of digitized items — all focusing on the role of IBM research and products in the history of science and information technology. A significant caveat, however, is that the revitalization of the Archives is very much a work in progress. Due to the large volume of material, at least three years of effort will be required before a meaningful portion of the collection’s finding aid pertaining to science and technology records is online, and even longer before a significant body of digitized items can be mounted. Nonetheless, an important corner has been turned, and the IBM Corporate Archives is well on the way toward becoming a valuable and more accessible resource for researchers looking into the history of science and information technology. For further information contact Paul C. Lasewicz, IBM Corporate Archivist, e-mail lasewicp@us.ibm.com.


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