Title: “Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives”
By Robert E. Wright
Source: The Readex Report (6.3; September 2011)
Old-fashioned research combined with new-fashioned digital searching techniques, especially in Readex’s newspaper and imprints databases, shows that U.S. corporate governance was relatively strong in the seven decades between ratification of the Constitution and the Civil War. Beginning in 2006, Richard Sylla and I obtained several grants from New York University, the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stern School of Business, and the National Science Foundation that allowed us to hire a platoon of research assistants tasked with finding and coding corporate charters in state session laws (alas, on microfiche) prior to the Civil War. They found over 22,000, clearly establishing America as the world’s leading “corporation nation” in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The numbers emanating from our corporation database, however, would have been of little help to policymakers without the context provided by other sources: the account books, letters, memoirs, and diaries that I discovered at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, but also scads of newspaper articles, industry analyses, and corporate annual reports, offering prospectuses, by-laws, and proxy pamphlets found quickly and cheaply in digital archives.
Digital archives had an even more profound impact by helping us to track individual corporations over time to see if they quickly died, thrived for decades, or more likely experienced something in between. After obtaining their initial charters and perhaps an amendment or two, corporations rarely appeared in the legislative record. Many, however, appeared in the newspaper and imprint records in advertisements, opinion editorials, and business pamphlets. Dividends or stock prices are available in some cases, as are annual or technical reports, all with just a few clicks of the mouse
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1. “Robert E. Wright (Sioux Falls, SD) is the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is the author of a dozen books, including Fubarnomics: A Lighthearted, Serious Look at America’s Economic Ills (Prometheus 2010). For many years he taught business, economic, and financial history at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is also a curator for the Museum of American Finance.”
2. The Readex Report is a quarterly publication from Readex, a division of NewsBank.