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Doing Historical Company Research

This research guide provides links to selected print and electronic resources, as well as tips and tricks for those trying to find information on older or out of business companies.

Introduction

Arthur B. Heaton, architect. [Two office buildings for Wardman Co. and Shannon & Luchs, 1435 and 1437 K Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. Front elevation]. 1927. Library of Congress Print & Photographs Division.

This research guide is a version of an onsite class taught entitled So.....you want to research "old" companies at the Library of Congress. Because that class was specifically focused on using the Library's resources, it has been modified into a web-based guide for those that cannot come to the Library of Congress. While many of these resources are specific to the Library, many others may also be available in local libraries and research institutions.

Of course, the resources included here are just a START and will hopefully provide a better sense of the types of sources used regularly and in what situations. There are also a few tips that may make your search a bit easier. If you are interested in the bigger picture of business history, see our guide Business History: A Resource Guide.

There are a few points to keep in mind

  • Every situation will be different.
  • Be aware that "old" is relative—a company could be 20, 50, 100+ years old, or it could just no longer be active.
  • Location, time period, and sources available will bring their own challenges. For example, some sources may not be organized in a way that is helpful for a particular situation, they may not have been published for a particular time period or cover the place needed, etc..
  • Don't limit yourself to "business" sources. Cast a wide net and even look in unexpected places and non-traditional sources.
  • You may have to start all over after finding new pieces of information along the way.
  • Many of the sources that we use to research today's active companies can also be used to look back in time if they have long publishing histories.
  • And lastly, sometimes doing research on older and defunct companies is a bit like doing genealogy.  You are putting together puzzle pieces and often revisiting what you found earlier when new information is located.

So bring your creativity and patience.

By putting the puzzle pieces together, a more cohesive picture will emerge. In the following article written for the "Inside Adams" blog, you will see an example of a company history developed on the firm of Janes Fowler & Kirtland:

Image of the puzzle pieces of doing historical company research
Screenshot from and Inside Adams blog posting